Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The worst question ever

Question Mark Graffiti by Bilal Kamoon
Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.
What's the worst question ever?  Let's get it out of the way right now:  the worst question ever is the critical one that you didn't ask.  There isn't just one.  The issue is that it's unasked.

When you don't ask that question you are running on incomplete or inaccurate information that could cause lost time, poor product or service quality, or even dollar bills.

So if that question mark is so potentially critical to your success, why does it remain unasked?

  1. You think you know the answer already.  You have made assumptions about the situation, the person, the problem or the cause of the problem.  You have education or experience that has conditioned habits of thought and routine paths into your mind.  You have a title that says you are the answer man or the answer woman.  So you don't ask the question.
  2. You don't know what you don't know.  Sometimes you are so in the dark about the situation that you don't know what questions should be asked, and what information is important.  This is a common problem in start-up businesses, and with people who are new in their roles.  There is a ton of information and skills that need to be mastered to operate successfully.  There are the big, broad-brush pieces of information and skill, and there are smaller nuances that might not be immediately noticeable.  When they don't ask questions at the outset they wind up learning the hard way - through trial and error.  That might not be a problem.  Or it might be a big one.
  3. You don't want to reveal your ignorance.  Fear of looking stupid or fear of being taken advantage of can cause you to put up a shield of bravado and try to fake your way through.  What if that person finds out that they can probably have their way with you in the negotiation phase of your interaction with them?  One of the implications of this reason for not asking is that you are likely to avoid opportunities that you don't already understand.  And when you avoid opportunities you cost yourself learning, future potential, and probably money.
  4. You are worried about hurting the other person's feelings.  Some of your questions might elicit negative reactions from the person you're asking.  There may be times when it makes sense to put the other person's feelings ahead of the information that you want or need.  Sometimes, though, you compromise your results when you don't ask.  If this person has demonstrated a pattern of not following through on their responsibilities it may be important for them to feel a bit uncomfortable.  If they aren't performing and you're worried that they will quit if you confront them with questions, why are you worried?  You won't be worse off if they leave.  As a matter of fact, you may have the opportunity to select someone else who will do a better job.  
Of course there are ways of asking questions that create discomfort and mistrust, and ways of asking them that actually strengthen the relationship between you and the other person.  If you want to keep things productive:
  • Use non-judgmental wording and body language if you want to prevent defensiveness on the part of the person you are asking.  Defensive behavior is partly determined by their habits of thought, and you  won't be able to eliminate it entirely.  But you can reduce incidences by modifying your behavior.
  • Disclose your purpose for asking.  When the other person perceives that you might be using some sort of manipulative strategy with them, they will be less likely to share.  They might even alter their answer a bit.  Authenticity on your part encourages authenticity on their part.
  • Ask open ended questions.  This technique will give you more information per question, and it will also prevent the conversation from feeling like an inquisition to the other individual.
  • Be willing to reciprocate, and maybe even go first by answering questions.  When any relationship is one-sided, the individual who feels like he or she is giving more starts to lose his or her enthusiasm.  Helpers tend to receive the most help.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Choosing to be a thermostat

Honeywell TH8110U1003 Vision Pro 8000 Digital Thermostat by jessicamijares
Honeywell TH8110U1003 Vision Pro 8000 Digital Thermostat,
a photo by 
jessicamijares on Flickr.
In stressful situations or emotionally charged workplaces, some people soak it in.  They do more than notice the external climate - they become the climate.

When the external emotional setting is not conducive to motivation and productivity - even to an individual's overall emotional health - the ability to exhibit internal self-control can be critical.  Imagine an emergency physician or a hospice nurse who cannot keep the external emotional influences "out there."

In health care in particular, some would argue that an apparent lack of empathy on the part of a health care provider interferes with quality care.  It's understandable that a patient and his or her family seeks validation for their upset in times of physical crisis.  Good bedside manner contributes to a patient's willingness to comply with recommended curative actions.  But if the health care provider were to fully engage emotionally with every situation their cognitive abilities could be hampered by their strong feelings.  They could find it difficult to make life-and-death decisions with their emotions clouding their view of the patient's condition.

In other work settings, when an individual has difficulty keeping outside influences out, he or she becomes susceptible to things like the de-motivation that results from hearing complaints, gossip, and from observing negative behaviors in coworkers.  A supervisor with low internal self-control can over-empathize with employees to the point that they neglect to correct poor behavior, or they keep non-performers in their roles so long that they compromise the company's results for the sake of not wanting to reduce a family income or hurt feelings.

Individuals with low internal self-control are thermometers - they reflect the temperature around them.  Effective leaders, however, are more like thermostats.  They set the temperature and maintain it.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Leadership Attribute - Integrative Thinking

Gear Train by Don Hoey
Gear Train,
a photo by 
Don Hoey on Flickr.
Today's workplace has enough moving parts that one decision you make in one part of your company or department will have ramifications throughout.  It probably would not be an exaggeration to say that a simple situation with one evident answer is rare.  So what is it that enables certain individuals to navigate particularly well in environments and on issues that are multifaceted or ambiguous?

People who are able to bring it all together are integrative thinkers. They have the mental talent to do so without thinking about how they are thinking - they do it naturally.

The Rotman School of Management at The University of Toronto defines integrative thinking as:
"...the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each."[1]
"Integrative thinkers build models rather than choose between them. Their models include consideration of numerous variables — customers, employees, competitors, capabilities, cost structures, industry evolution, and regulatory environment — not just a subset of the above. Their models capture the complicated, multi-faceted and multi-directional causal relationships between the key variables in any problem. Integrative thinkers consider the problem as a whole, rather than breaking it down and farming out the parts. Finally, they creatively resolve tensions without making costly trade-offs, turning challenges into opportunities."
You can help yourself to think more integratively even if it isn't automatic for you.  You can become more effective by removing the obstacles that prevent you from seeing the whole picture.  Some of the obstacles to integrative thinking are:
  • Set models for approaching problems that you go to every time.  This situation may not fit your good old model.  It might even contradict your model.
  • Working on one component at a time.  This can be driven by a cultural or personal resistance to change, concerns about budgets, fragmentation of work responsibilities, etc.
  • Over-valuing of time urgency.  This causes individuals or groups to address the immediate symptom right now rather than to step back and look at an integrated view. It results in curing a never-ending series of the symptoms without fixing the underlying problem.
  • In organizations, silo communication structures.  If an organization is going to be integrative it needs to be able to see multiple aspects of the same picture, and to introduce potential solutions that incorporate a number of functional perspectives.
If you are trying to determine what to do about a problem, integrative thinking helps you to understand which pieces are critical.  When you can see the components you can see alternative solutions with a variety of configurations.  And when you keep the whole in mind while dealing with the pieces you are better able to develop solutions that either serve more than one purpose or at least do not create disruption in other parts of the whole.

Even if you do not automatically think integratively you can set up processes and support systems to help you do so.  If you have the luxury of a staff around you, select for that trait in your assistant or key deputy.  Approach problem solving tasks in cross-functional teams so you avoid silo myopathy.  Last, remember that things are not always going to line up.  Opposing forces may always create tension, but the tension itself may become part of the key to your integrated solution.

If you want to be able to better leverage integrative thinking, Summit can provide diagnostics that help you to identify individuals on your team that have it.  In addition, Summit coaches can assist you in developing organizational processes that help you to create integrated solutions to your business problems.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What comes after the victory dance

NASCAR VICTORY DANCE by nflravens
NASCAR VICTORY DANCE,
a photo by 
nflravens on Flickr.
This story is about a nine-year-old swimmer, but it might as well be about you...

The nine-year-old swimmer walked with her mother to the car in the dark at 8:15 at night after a 90-minute practice.  "I'm thinking that it's time that I retire from swimming," she said.

"Why?"  her mother asked.

"Because I have already achieved my short term and long term goals," the swimmer replied.

Intrigued, the mother couldn't resist asking, "What about your goal you told me a few weeks ago - the one about being the youngest swimmer ever to make the Olympic team?"

"I never wrote that one down," the young swimmer answered.  She didn't write that one down.  That mean't it wasn't official.  (Smart girl.)  Discussion closed.

Imagine considering yourself "done" at 9 years old.  Only a kid and already having reached the pinnacle of your anticipated achievements.  If you knew the individuals in this story personally you would know that this was a terrific example of this particular pre-teen's attempts at testing the waters.  She knew that her mother wouldn't be keen on her quitting swimming.  She also knew that her mother talked all of the time in terms of goals to be achieved (as did her swim coach).  The young swimmer really did write her performance targets down, a team activity that the coach supervised.  So she thought perhaps goal-speak would help her be persuasive.

She had done the victory dance, and now her eye was turning to the potential joys of long evenings hanging out in a comfy chair with her iPad instead of doing lap after lap, practice set after practice set, in preparation for an endless string of competitions.  (She's still in the pool, by the way, with a Championship meet only a week in front of her.)

How do you feel after you've won the big one and done the victory dance?  Do you see yourself as finished?  After the goal is achieved, do you see only an endless stream of activities in your future, mind-numbing, stress-inducing, pointless?  Or do you picture yourself continuing to measure your performance, tweaking your methods and other variables with an aspiration to squeeze out a new personal record?

The good news - and perhaps the bad news too? - is that your goal is not the end.  Of course your boss will tell you so, because the next quarter's results are still ahead.  But beyond the requirements of externally-defined business performance requirements, you have a new opportunity to set another milestone for yourself.  Your new goal can re-energize you, give you a renewed sense of purpose, and focus your time use.

You may feel like you need a little time to celebrate, and you may have the luxury of doing that.  Celebration is important, but it's not the end.  It's the beginning of the next journey.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Leveraging Other Duties, as Assigned

Other Duties, as Assigned by mtsofan
Other Duties, as Assigned, a photo by mtsofan on Flickr.
This golden retriever is a bat dog for the Trenton Thunder, a AA baseball team.  Part of its "other duties, as assigned" is to carry bottled water to the umpires during the game.  Cute, and a treat for the fans.

Both manager and employee can benefit from leveraging those four magic words that are sometimes missed at the bottom of the employee's position description.  It probably won't involve carrying a basket in one's teeth in front of thousands of adoring fans, but here's why it can be beneficial:

For the manager
There are a lot of short term projects that could either fall between the cracks of existing job roles, or that are experimental, so that there is the potential for a future permanent slot but not one right now.  Other duties, as assigned, give the manager the flexibility to cover bases (baseball pun just slipped out there!) that the usual assignments don't cover.

A manager may also be able to provide opportunities for up-and-comers to stretch their skills and display talents that are outside the realm of their everyday workload.  By using this technique the manager can test the individual's potential for advancement to an expanded or changed role.  This can also allow the opportunity for other employees and company leaders to become accustomed to seeing the individual in a different context, making a transition to a new role easier in the company's operational and social frameworks.

The magic five words can also help a leader combat the "it's not my job" objection when less-than-motivated employees resist taking assignments.  Of course there are probably remedies that need to be pursued in this case, and that could be fodder for a post of its own.

For the employee
Some employees enjoy knowing what's going to happen every day when they go to work.  They relish the routine - if they are lucky enough to be among the few who have the luxury of avoiding the "change or die" environment that many businesses and workers live in today.  But you might be one of the many who zone out and atrophy when they do the same things day after day.

"Other duties, as assigned" can become your opportunity to shake up the daily routine.  You may have skills that are untapped in your usual role, or you might aspire to a wider scope of authority.  If that's the case, volunteer for special projects as they arise.  You may even choose to prime the pump with your boss a bit by letting him or her know that you are eager to take on some additional responsibilities.

Your "other duties" might simply add some spice to your week.  Or they might be a stepping stone to something new and interesting.  They might even reveal a skill set and a passion that set you on an entirely new career path that's in greater alignment with your goals and talents.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Creating the climate for performance

Professional Services strategy meeting over coffee by VocusUK
Professional Services strategy meeting over coffee,
a photo by 
VocusUK on Flickr.
Not everyone in your company is likely to be a star performer - and even your top folks (and you!) are likely to slip from time to time.  We're all human, after all.

Some leaders, knowing this, sit back and wait until somebody messes up and then bring them into the boss's office for a "conversation" or "coaching session" about what happened.  This management by exception might seem like a time-saver, but it is a form of crisis management that creates some unintended consequences:

  • Some employees may genuinely not understand what their manager expects from them.
  • Certain employees may hobble through the day without adequate training in their job role, and the savviest of them manage to fly under the radar without making errors large enough to be noticed by the big guy (or gal).
  • Employees see that certain of their colleagues aren't doing what they need to do, but they aren't going to tell the boss - unless the colleague's errors affect their own performance.
  • Certain individuals may have habitual behaviors that could be considered demonstrations of "attitude," and if they aren't dramatic enough for the boss to notice, they start to be interpreted as acceptable.  
This can lead to resentment among employees, a negative or contentious work climate that is observable by clients, and a situation where a manager suddenly finds himself or herself needing to handle a serious disciplinary situation, feeling like drastic action might be necessary.

Core values - a key preventative tool
When you take time to establish and document core values for your company or your department, you create rules of engagement.  These are best developed by including the team that will be expected to carry them out, because their buy-in and full understanding of what the values are intended to mean and do from the outset will be a big factor in their willingness and ability to conform to them.

Defining the short list of non-negotiable values is only the first step.  The next is for the group to identify specific behaviors that demonstrate the values.  If the company cites "Power through collaboration" as one of its values, what does that mean?  Does it mean that whenever a problem arises a team is formed to handle it?  Does it mean that staffers are supposed to work together with vendors rather than squeeze every ounce of profit out of them?

Reinforcing the values is important.  A leader can do so by:

  1. Repeating them in meetings.
  2. Sharing war stories that catch employees doing something right that exemplifies the values.
  3. Posting them.
  4. Giving recognition, rewards or awards to people who go above and beyond according to the stated core values
You should only commit to the core values that you are willing to stand behind, otherwise they (and you) will lose credibility with employees.  If you follow through to support them you will
  • Help employees rise to the "big reasons" why they do what they do every day, and
  • Lay the foundation - up front - for solid performance under a shared definition of excellence.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Better a mirror than a flashlight

Mirrors by E.L.A
Mirrors, a photo by E.L.A on Flickr.
What do good leaders, good coaches, and good parents have in common?  They behave like mirrors rather than flashlights.

Think about this for a second.  What is the goal of all three roles?  To help an individual along - for a while - and then to let go so they can operate in a competent and confident manner.  You can't achieve this goal by being a flashlight.

A flashlight illuminates the item at which it's directed.  It contains light, knowledge, experience, etc. that it shares.  But when the flashlight is turned off, or when it's at home in a drawer somewhere it can't provide light - not even when it's desperately needed.  And the person who needs it is in the dark.

A mirror, on the other hand, fulfills the purpose of reflecting light rather than providing light of its own.  The subject in the mirror sees himself or herself as they are (provided that the mirror gives an accurate reflection).  When the subject changes facial expression they see it, and when they move their arm to a different position it is shown to them in the mirror.  After consulting the mirror a few times the person knows what they look like, so they don't have to use it all of the time.

In your role as a leader, or parent, or even friend, your assumptions about yourself and the people you lead are determining whether you're taking on the role of flashlight - or that of mirror.  If you are assuming that you are full of valuable information and the other person is lacking it, you're going to be more likely to try to illuminate them.  That's the flashlight talking.  But if you assume that the other individual has his or her own knowledge, observations and experience, you are more likely to ask questions to help him or her reflect and draw conclusions that are independent of your opinions.

Let's get back to the goal again - ultimately to let the person loose to think and operate independently from you.  Flashlight (illuminating, or information sharing) behavior doesn't promote independence.  Flashlight behavior contributes to dependence, an ongoing reliance on outside input and a lack of confidence in one's own judgement.

What is preventing you from helping your staff (or your kids) to become autonomously successful?  Is it possible that your ego is causing you to over-share and under-ask?  Are you more concerned about appearing valuable than you are about helping them to increase their value?

Flashlight behavior is production.  Mirror behavior is the building of greater production capacity by developing others.  If you truly want to see greater results from your team AND have dreams of taking a vacation that doesn't involve calling into the office every day to check on things - start honing your mirror behavior.  Learn to ask questions so they don't rely on you for their answers.  Teach them to think for themselves by helping them see where to look, but make sure they look for themselves so that next time they'll be able to find it on their own.

Your greatest gift to them is ultimately to let them go and do and be, lit by their own light.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Securing the future for your family business

Knittel family Barber Shop 1201 High St, St. Louis  by pknitty86
Knittel family Barber Shop 1201 High St, St. Louis ,
a photo by 
pknitty86 on Flickr.
It might be surprising that the business you founded all those years ago has attained its current size.  It has sustained you and your kids as they have grown up, and now that they are adults it's time to determine what, if any, expanded family presence will be in your company.

  • The time to start thinking about this is before your children graduate from high school.  You might have opportunities to allow them to participate in the business on an informal basis while they are still young. 
  • Take an unbiased look (as much as this is possible) at your child's interests and capabilities.  They may be a "natural" for your business, or they may not have the interest necessary to bring them on.  
  • Have a candid conversation with them before they pursue any higher education about whether their goal is to join the family business.  If they do want to come into the business at some point, you can then make more detailed plans.  If they do not wish to enter the business you will have to start to make other arrangements.
  • Develop a plan for integrating family members into the business, write it down, and share it with the affected family members.  You may choose to develop it together with them, but it's important that everyone knows the expectations to avoid later problems and misunderstandings.
    • Will you require family members to gain experience elsewhere before they join the business?  Many family-owned businesses do this to build expertise, and also to give the incoming family members perspective on the workplace.
    • What career path will be appropriate?  Your business might require that they learn the nuts and bolts at every level before they are assigned leadership responsibilities.  You might also choose to do this so your offspring or other family member won't spoil your company's culture with an attitude of entitlement.
    • How will family members move from being employees to being co-owners of the business?  This is not always the goal, but this needs to be an item under consideration.
    • What development opportunities will you provide for them to help them perform well?  They will not come to you already polished up and ready to run the place, and their aptitudes may be different from yours.
    • How will you handle in-laws?  How will you treat your various children differently and yet fairly?  Perceptions about shares in business profits, leadership opportunities, consequences for (or overlooking) bad behavior, etc. can drive lasting wedges between family members.
    • How long do you want to be active in the business, and how will you prepare to transfer leadership and/or ownership to the next generation?  How will you identify whether they have what it takes to keep the company going, or whether you need to sell the enterprise?
You have dual focus as the owner of the family business - the business and the family.  You may decide that one is more important to you than the other, and your values regarding their order of priority will drive your decision-making.  Better, though, to make the choice consciously so you don't find yourself reacting to a situation and realizing later that you have inadvertently hurt - or even ruined - something that was valuable to you.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When Dad is the boss

Father With Adult Son In Park by TheTabernacle
Father With Adult Son In Park,
a photo by 
TheTabernacle on Flickr.
One of the most satisfying family experiences is one of building a legacy together in business.  It can also be one of the biggest tests of business acumen AND the strength of the family bond.

If you're considering a family-owned startup the idea may feel somewhat romantic.  It is exciting to contemplate building something together.  It's a different deal, though, when Dad or Mom started the business and Junior or Missy (or their spouses) have now become part of the already-established enterprise.  Here are some of the frequently occurring issues:


  1. When Dad (or Mom) is the boss, it's sometimes easy for the familial patterns of behavior to carry over into the business. If one child had a tough time cutting the mustard in school it may be difficult for the parent to forget, and to trust the adult child's judgment.  If their child was coddled as a youngster Mom or Dad may continue to give them special treatment in the family workplace.
  2. Family members can start to feel entitled to leadership roles.  They may assume that they are the de facto heir apparent, and that may be Dad's intention in bringing them into the business in the first place.  But the family connection is not enough to ensure that Junior has what it takes to keep the business going.
  3. Family members may have their eye on the bank account.  One of the reasons that business ownership can be so attractive is that it can be so financially rewarding.  But it can become tempting for family members to focus on the short-term payday prospects rather than the long term health of the company.  Businesses have been bankrupted by family members taking too much cash out of the company for their personal use.
  4. In a changing marketplace, Dad's old-school ways may be hurting the business.  If the older, owner generation isn't keeping pace with changing technology, product preferences, etc., the son or daughter may bring some critical know-how to the table.  The trick is in getting Dad to listen, and to take action on their recommendations.  (See #1 above)
  5. It may be difficult for Dad or Mom to call it a day.  Work relationships and family relationships can become muddied, with business talk consuming Thanksgiving dinner or vacation time on the beach.  Mom or Dad might put in such long days at the office that their families feel like they are not as important as the "first baby" - the business.  And when Dad is getting older and close to typical retirement age, he may be tempted (or worried enough about Junior) to overstay his effectiveness in the business.  (See #4 above)
  6. The business may not be designed - or capable - of sustaining multiple family members financially.  This can come into play when Dad or Mom retires and expects Junior's efforts in the business to keep them in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.  Dad's golf and deep-sea fishing habits may become a drain on business resources when he's no longer contributing to the revenue stream.
  7. Junior or Missy may not want to be in the business.  They may start out thinking that it would be easy to take the job that's the easy path, but they may not care about landscaping or sprinkler systems in the same way Dad did.  Dad's disappointment with this can color his relationship with his offspring, because his vision of a family legacy won't be fulfilled.  He'll have to take other steps to find a buyer for the business (sometimes actually the best scenario!) or close it.
All this is not to dissuade you from working side by side with your family members. Husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters make it work every day.  But if you're going to take this step, do it with your eyes open.  Talk about the potential issues as early in the process as you can so they don't sneak up on you.  And take preventative measures - even legal ones - to help to make sure that you grow the business AND keep the family together.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The spousal discount

THE HONEYMOONERS by bernie.levine (new year, new beginning)
THE HONEYMOONERS,
a photo by 
bernie.levine (new year, new beginning) on Flickr.
This post is a collection of observations gathered over more than 22 years working with individuals in a variety of workplace and community volunteer settings. It is not a result of an academic study.  It's not the subject of a thesis.   Some of it has been fodder for stories over beers.  But it comes from real experiences.  If you see yourself and your own experiences reflected here, please comment.

"I told my wife not to do it that way, but she ignored me.  Then two hours later her girlfriend told her the exact same information - and she listened!   Aargh!"

"I am convinced that my husband must think I'm stupid. I have a Masters Degree, for heaven's sake!  I'm an executive at a well-respected company!  But somehow he doesn't trust my opinion!"

"I swear that the only difference between me and that consultant they hired is that the consultant had to fly here from five states away.  Why does it seem that they believe somebody more when they don't live here?"

The phenomenon we've named The Spousal Discount is one where you accept the validity of only 50-70% of what your loved one or close acquaintance says.  Even if they are a brain surgeon or rocket scientist or nuclear physicist, if they live with you The Spousal Discount says that their input is suspect.

Why is this the case?  

  • You see them at their worst.  You know that they leave their dirty socks in the middle of the floor.  How could someone who does THAT have valuable information to contribute to the conversation?
  • You aren't happy with them about something right now.  It might be a big deal, or it might be the latest recurrence of your little pet peeve.  But either way, it's interfering with your ability to truly tune in when they are talking.  You see their lips moving, but the sound that hits your ears is "blah, blah, blah..."
  • They are there all the time, in the background of whatever you are doing.  Your mind is elsewhere.  This is no special occasion, and there will be plenty of time to talk later - maybe, if you decide to make time for it.
  • You didn't ask for their opinion, yet there it is, right on cue.  It seems that you can never just vent about your work challenges or the latest infractions of the kids without them butting in with their point of view.
  • You have habits of thought about certain traits or characteristics of theirs.  Perhaps it's their level of education, or their birthplace, or their family background.  You love them despite all that, but in times of stress you have a harder time seeing past your preconceptions.  "Well, they grew up in hicksville, so what do they know about the city?"  "Their family never struggled like mine did, so they have no idea how important this is."  Etc.
  • You have history with them.  They have messed up in the past, and you don't want to be fooled twice.  So now you seek a second opinion whenever they diagnose, just to be sure.
Have you experienced the spousal discount?  Has it been on the giving side, or on the receiving side?  Do you see the workplace version of this, where outsider input is valued more highly than is insider input?  Let's hear it!  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

All talk and no action? Try these 5 tips.

All Talk No Action by captainpandapants
All Talk No Action, a photo by captainpandapants on Flickr.
This is a part of a series of posts on gathering useful input...

One of the few phrases that still comes to mind from first year German class - we won't say how many years ago - is "macht nichts".  Literally translated it means "it doesn't do anything", but in common use it's an idiom that means "never mind" or "it doesn't matter".

When asked about prime time wasters, many executive cite "too many meetings" as one of the biggies.  The issue is not the meetings themselves, but rather that the outcome of many of the meetings macht nichts.  They don't matter, don't change anything, and don't alter employee behavior, and are primarily an empty consumption of airtime.

Your team meetings are one of the most expensive activities in which you engage.  Think about the aggregate salaries sitting around the table and multiply the hourly cost by the length of the meeting.  Ouch.  Input is important, discussion and problem solving are important, but if nothing happens afterward  your investment in group interaction is for nicht.

The best-run teams implement methods that are aimed directly at making meetings matter.  Here are some of them:

Meeting practices that lead to action

  1. Identify the purpose of the meeting ahead of time.  Better yet, share it with the attendees when you invite them so they have accurate expectations. If it's to make a decision, guide the meeting toward that end.  If it's to lay out a game plan, do that.  Sounds simple, but it often doesn't happen that way.
  2. Take meeting notes and use them.  Assign an individual to keep track of decisions and identified actions, and to disseminate them afterward to all meeting participants so everyone is (literally and figuratively) on the same page.
  3. Assign accountabilities.  Who has the bell around their neck for making sure that identified actions are actually done?  Name them and include the information in the meeting notes.  All assigned accountabilities need to have a direct reporting line to one of the meeting participants if the accountable parties are not doing it themselves.
  4. Establish target dates.  The action items generated in the meeting are not the only things on the participants' plates of work.  The target dates help to identify the tasks' relative priority in the workload.
  5. Set the follow-up meeting date before you leave the room.  Phone tag, email tag - they can all consume valuable time.  If it's important to undertake a task and to complete it on time, set the next meeting to coincide with key target dates.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Surefire methods for bringing the team's ideas together

Convergence by Ghetu Daniel
Convergence, a photo by Ghetu Daniel on Flickr.
This the fourth post in a series on generating useful input:

Sometimes it's not important for your group to come together under a single decision or set of actions.  They might not be the ones making the final call, and that's fine as long as you tell them up front that they will be input-only in function in this case.  

But if your input team is also chartered with making a decision and implementing it, you need some way to bring their divergent ideas together.  Remember that it's important not to skip the step prior to this one.  It might seem more efficient to go straight to the solution, but it is rarely more effective.  If you rush the team and don't allow some time for them to explore more than the same old options (or same one ritual remedy) you will miss the opportunity to lay the foundation for better results.  AND if you bypass the step before this one and go straight here you will risk the commitment of the team.  You may be branded a control freak and erode employee trust.

When it's time to bring the list of ideas together you want to consider:

  • The relative authority levels of the people on the team.  If there is disparity you may want to assume that some participants will be concerned about openly disagreeing with the boss when it comes time to make a decision.
  • The temperaments of the team members.  Some may not offer their opinions unless directly asked, and some may need more consideration time than others before committing themselves.
  • The speed with which the team has to make a decision.  Sometimes you have some leeway in your deadline, and therefore you can allocate more time for people to ponder their options.  More time, however, doesn't necessarily mean a better decision.  Vacillation due to fear can create a stall, where more or perfect information is not the issue.  When the group stalls, fear of a bad decision is the issue, and they delay the feared consequence by avoiding making the call.
  • Your definition of the word "consensus".  It means the common sense of most after the consultation of all.  Consensus does not require unanimity, but if there are a couple of holdouts with strong objections in the group you need to handle them now and attempt to incorporate some reasonable resolution that they can live with.  Once the group says "go," the expectation is that each member of the group will actively support the measure.
  • Avoid up/down voting.  When somebody on the team votes against a measure, they have now built in a "win" for the measure to fail.  You don't want adversaries from the outset to hamper the implementation of your team's decision.  And the higher in the organization the opposition is, the bigger the negative impact will be on the team decision.
Tools for Convergent Thinking
  1. Multi-voting - Use this when a list of options or potential root causes has been defined.  Each participant receives a number (5?) of votes in the form of sticky dots or marker votes.  Each takes a turn "spending" the votes on the items they deem as most important.  They may distribute their votes however they choose, so a high-priority item may receive all five from one or more people.  Note:  the appearance of a cluster of votes around a certain answer or answers can create a bit of mob mentality, with later voters gravitating toward the popular items rather than "wasting" their votes on items that have little apparent chance of winning.
  2. Nominal group technique - When the multi-voting is too public, when you want to make sure that groupthink (premature caving in for the sake of conflict avoidance or loyalty) doesn't distort your outcome, or when you want to speed up the process, you can distribute slips of paper to each participant, have them record their vote on the slips, and then collect them and tally the results.
  3. Criteria screening - Score each of the options (1-5 or 1-10) on the basis of agreed-upon criteria, and select the option with the highest score.  For example, a list of potential home improvement projects might be screened based upon safety, cost, impact on home resale value, energy efficiency, and functionality.  Whichever project receives the most points is the one that receives the first investment.
Summit provides third-party facilitation services for work teams.  This might include long-range planning, core values clarification, cycle time reduction, or other projects.  More info at www.summithrd.com.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ten special rules for the big cheese in the group

Cheesy Conquest by chd04
Cheesy Conquest, a photo by chd04 on Flickr.
This is the third post in a series on getting the input you want and need.

You, yes you, don't realize the impact that your title has on the function of your team.  When you are the big cheese and you are a participant in the group you carry additional clout.  You might not think that you're any big deal, but your employees see it differently.  To them you are the authority figure, and they will step a bit more quickly and watch their words a bit more carefully when you are in the vicinity.

Ironically, your know-how and authority, while they are valuable resources for the company, can be the death of free and creative interaction and input on your team.  Your authority can cause people to have undue concern with saving face, and that can shut the conversation down faster than a mysterious noxious odor in a closed car.

You don't have to keep yourself out of the group, though, to have it function effectively.  Just follow these rules and you can provide the implementation juice to the group without shutting off the flow of input.

  1. Establish a charter.  The input group can't function effectively if it doesn't know what it's expected to accomplish.  The group or your management team can work with you on refining the charter - it doesn't have to be your task alone.  The important thing is that the group knows what it's supposed to do, the constraints (budget, etc.), and the targeted completion date.
  2. Identify a chairperson that is not you.  This person's responsibility is to lead the group toward the fulfillment of its charter.  Once they are in place, don't grab the steering wheel out of their hands.  If you have to have some off-line discussion, do so, but it's important to give them full authority to lead the group while it's together.
  3. Hire or identify a facilitator.  This person's job is to manage the process, not the outcome.  A third-party facilitator can be beneficial because they don't necessarily wear the same cultural goggles as the rest of the group.  They know about how to help people become comfortable sharing candidly, and have methods for both divergent and convergent thinking phases of your process.  If you are using an internal facilitator, make sure that they are trained in facilitation skills.  In addition, they function best if they do not come from (and are not influenced by) the impacted departments and their power structures.
  4. Stay quiet.  As soon as you open your mouth, the group will tend to defer to you.  If you're a person who tends to process ideas out loud this might be difficult for you.  But remember that the reason you're bringing this group together is to gather their input.  If it's going to be all about you and your views don't kid anyone.  Just do it yourself and save time, energy, and frustration.  If you must weigh in, wait until last to do so.
  5. Stay open.  Your ideas might be different from those of the group.  They will have the highest level of commitment to their own ideas, so it's to your advantage to let them go with theirs.  Sound improvement process involves testing solutions, so you can manage financial and other risk in this way.
  6. Allow adequate time.  Group process requires time, and some of your participants may need the opportunity to get used to some ideas before they are ready to move forward.  If you set too fast a pace, (and this can happen unintentionally, when you're a quick thinker) you can create the impression that you don't really want to know.
  7. Understand the stages of group change.  The team may start out upbeat and enthusiastic, but it's natural, even inevitable, that they will undergo some storming along the way.  This doesn't mean that you selected the wrong team, or that they aren't doing their jobs.  If you're hearing negativity and resistance it's actually a good sign.  Storming indicates
    • That they're taking it seriously
    • That they are feeling open and comfortable enough to express something other than the company line
  8. Help them implement.  If nothing happens after group input your process will lose credibility.  You have raised expectations for positive change, now it's time to help it happen.  Even if resources are tight (hopefully you've defined a budget in your charter), help the team acquire the things they need.
  9. Remember to recognize and to celebrate.  Behavior that is rewarded is repeated, so if you want to see more teams provide more input and implement more improvements, show them that you mean it.
  10. Measure, measure, measure.  The question "How do you know?" becomes really important.  You can delegate measurement to the team, for "before" and "after" conditions.  But the measurable impact of the initiatives the team develops gives intrinsic reward AND builds credibility for the team-based process.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Blue sky thinking with your team

"The Wild Blue Yonder" by Jim-AR
"The Wild Blue Yonder", a photo by Jim-AR on Flickr.
This is the second in a series of posts on gathering useful input.

You've assembled your team and you're ready to get some work done.  You've been aware of this issue for some time, and you have ruminated about some possible solutions.  But you know that it's sound methodology to involve your team in developing a way forward.

Not so fast, though.  If you really want the best solution or the best strategic option, a rush to judgement is not a good idea.  First, if you enter the room with a fait accompli the group will feel set up and will see through your "input" tactics.  That's group pronouncement, not team problem solving and decision making.  Second, as mentioned in the preceding post, not everyone has had the opportunity to think this through yet.  If you truly want them to weigh in you need to give them an opportunity to engage in their own thought process.


  1. If the team is tasked with solving a problem you first have to agree upon the problem and the evidence (effects or measurements) that tell you that it is indeed an issue.
  2. The team needs to explore the root cause (or causes) of the problem.  Here's where some divergent thinking comes into play.  There might be a dozen (or even far more) contributors to the problem, but if you resolve the root cause(s) you'll be most of the way toward improvement.
    • A Fishbone (Ishikawa) Diagram will help the group to expand its thinking to include any and all potential causes.  The goal of this exercise is to gather diversified input in an organized fashion.
    • If you truly want involvement from every participant, go around the group for each category of cause until the input is exhausted.  Individuals can say "Pass" if they don't have anything to add.
    • No editing of participant input is allowed here.  If you wordsmith the input or question its validity you will shut the divergent thinking down.
  3. The group will determine which of the causes is the root, or main cause of the problem.  (More on how to do this in a future post.)
  4. Now it's potential solution time.  Again, it's important to avoid rushing to judgement.  A brainstorming process helps you develop a number of potential solutions.  You are not at the point of choosing one yet.  The initial intent is to gather as many as you can, and it's good when participants build upon prior contributions.  It might help to do a practice brainstorm to get the juices going (what are uses for a pad of sticky notes?).  Then go around the group, allowing members to contribute or pass.  No pressure, and no editing of input is allowed.
  5. The group then selects a solution or solutions and creates a plan of action to address the root cause.
Sometimes leaders avoid the blue sky thinking because they are in a hurry.  Sometimes they are in a groove of established "acceptable" solutions or paths of action and are resistant to trying something new.  Some of the input generated during steps 2 and 4 above may sound out of the norm or even downright wacky.  That's good because new answers, new solutions are the ones that are going to give you new results.  

This isn't to say that all of the proven solutions are out the window.  But the divergent thinking portions of your process, if you're willing to go there with both feet, can boost creativity and generate energy around the actions that will follow.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Getting the input you want and need

Getting input from volunteers by clcunited
Getting input from volunteers, a photo by clcunited on Flickr.
This is the first in a series of posts on gathering useful input.

Before you read any further, understand that there are a few assumptions underlying this series of posts:

  1. Individuals and groups think their own ideas are better than yours.  This means that if you want to have the best chance of gaining full commitment to a course of action, pull the action ideas from the individuals who will be responsible for implementing them.
  2. The people closest to the work are the ones with the most accurate information.  With every level you are removed from the actual task you lose a layer of data that could make or break your initiative.  If you truly want the "right" answer, get the input of the people who are doing it.
  3. Input groups are a great way (when managed properly) to build team unity.  You can provide opportunities for greater cross-functional awareness and appreciation.  You can cross-fertilize good ideas and experience.  You can allow the informal leaders to reveal themselves, and in some instances to test their leadership wings in this controlled setting.
  4. You need to know whether you really want group input or not, and if so what kind you want.  If you don't really want to know, don't ask, because once you ask you have established an expectation that you are going to use the input.
Different types of input
You might have completely opposite purposes among different input groups.  Sometimes you want to expand the possibilities that can be considered, so you implement methods intended to develop a lot of diverse, unedited answers from your input group.  You may want the group itself to become more open-minded, so its involvement with divergent thinking may serve an educational purpose as well as one that forwards a task.

In some cases you have a skeleton of a direction already established, and you want to flesh it out.  Because you're already partly through the process you don't necessarily want completely new and unstructured answers - you want to build upon what's already there.  At the same time you know that it's important that certain constituencies are completely on board with whatever is coming.  So your job in the input group is to give the opportunity for participants to weigh in, but in a manner that won't take the task too far off track. This is called convergent thinking, a narrowing of the options to work toward a consolidated result.

One other point for leaders:  you may have been thinking about the topic for quite a while.  Your input group, however, may not yet have had the time to give full thought to the issue at hand.  Some introduction, background and/or divergent thinking may be necessary before you help them come together for a single course of action.  They may need some time to explore the situation and to develop some ideas.  Otherwise, if you move too quickly, the group may feel as though they are being manipulated and that you are not being genuine in your request for their input.  And that will undermine their trust in you as their leader.

Tomorrow we'll talk about methods for generating divergent (expansive) input.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why time management tricks don't work

time management إدارة الوقت by أحمد إبراهيم البشير Ahmed Basheer
time management إدارة الوقت,
a photo by 
أحمد إبراهيم البشير Ahmed Basheer on Flickr.
Better time management is in the top 5 desired improvements that people have shared with Summit coaches over the years.  They aren't satisfied with their own, or staff members aren't meeting deadlines, or they are seeing it in personal lives that are being sucked away by unending work demands.

Many of these people resort to color coded folders, mirrors full of sticky notes, and the illusion of more productivity through multi-tasking.  But these tricks only work temporarily if at all.  To deal with time management for real you have to look a bit deeper.

  1. Purpose - Identify the big reason why you are doing what you are doing.  If a particular activity is not aligned with your purpose, it goes to the back of the line.  It might even be kicked out altogether.
  2. Values - Part of the stress behind time management problems doesn't come directly from time pressure.  It stems from feeling incongruent and inauthentic.  There might be activities that are popular with your peers that aren't really important to you, and that might even work directly in conflict with some of your goals.  For instance, if your peer group is all about expensive outings and vacations and you believe that saving a tidy nest egg is important, you might choose not to go.
  3. Goals - Being busy is not the same as being successful.  Think about the hamster on the wheel, running and running, but going nowhere.  Goals provide focus for the use of your time, and they work even better for your time management when they are prioritized.  When you have to make a choice something goes to the top of the list.  It should be the activity that does the most to help you achieve what you want to achieve.
Caveat:  Remember that not all downtime is wasted or a sign of poor time management.  You don't have unlimited production capacity.  Your body and brain won't work well without rest, without proper nutrition (eat breakfast and take time for lunch!), and it will be hard to be efficient as a team later later if you don't invest some time in relationship building with team members now.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Do it every day

yoga by GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS
yoga, a photo by GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS on Flickr.
Many of the New Year's resolutions that are written involve the development of new, beneficial habits.  If you are serious about turning over a new leaf - at the beginning of a new year or not - your ability to integrate consistent new behaviors makes the difference between achieving your desired results - and continuing to be frustrated with your results.

The challenge here is that some of the behaviors you need to integrate could be characterized as self-discipline.  They might not feel rewarding in the immediate moment, and may even be inconvenient or uncomfortable.  You have to make a conscious choice to do them, and to remain steadfast to your goal you have to keep the longer view (that of your goal, achieved) in the forefront of your mind.

One way to help yourself integrate new habits is to do them every day.  If you're going to work out a total of 3 hours per week, rather than doing 1 hour three times per week, do 24 minutes or so every day.  Do it at a consistent time of day, too.  And if you are truly committed to your goal, take the action first thing in the morning so nothing sidetracks you from it.  Otherwise you'll find yourself more likely to say "I'm not up to it right now - I can do it tomorrow."  And before long you'll realize that you've said "tomorrow" so many times in a row that you're way off-track.

When you do it every day you remove the decision whether or not to do it.  Your daily dog walk becomes automatic - simply something that you do as a regular matter of course.  You get up, eat breakfast, brush your teeth and then walk the dog.  Simple.  Then before you know it a week, two weeks, and more have gone by and you have walked every single day.

When you do it every day you notice more quickly when you're taken off-track.  It would be naive to assume that nothing will ever prevent you from going for your morning run.  But if you're serious about making sure you do it every day, you can plan for contingencies ahead of time.  You can plan to use a treadmill and run inside at your house, or use your mp3 play list to get you through some strength building exercises if the sidewalks are icy.

When you do it every day, and especially when you mark it in your calendar, you are less likely to forget to do it.  And when you keep a physical record of doing it, you can feel the daily success of checking it off on your To Do list.

Success - however you define it - is built through consistent goal-directed action.  It's how you move your hands and feet - every day - that makes the difference between inertia and progress.  What are you going to do today and tomorrow and the next day to take you closer to your goals?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Is your business bite-sized?

Bite sized Low Fat Non-Fried Samosa Cups - Perfect Appetizer by sreelus
Bite sized Low Fat Non-Fried Samosa Cups -
Perfect Appetizer
, a photo by sreelus on Flickr.
From tapas restaurants to catered buffets, bite-sized is a serious trend.  The table is loaded, but it's with little pieces of a lot of different choices.  Even if you're not in food services, the concepts behind bite-sized might just help you to generate new clients - and keep them.

Why would someone only choose a bite or two when they could have a meal?  Here are some of the reasons why:

  • They are not sure they will like it.  The commitment to one bite is a risk they are willing to take.
  • They have other things on their plate that they have already ordered, and more than a bite of this dish would make the total meal too heavy.
  • Your dish is rare and costly, and they can only afford a small portion.  Think of caviar here.
  • They want variety on their plate, and having small bites allows them to have a diversified and tasty meal.
  • A large slice of cake will blow their diet, but a teensy cupcake won't do any harm.  They can say yes instead of saying no - because your offering is bite-sized.
Now of course the idea here is that one bite creates the desire for another, and another.  There has to be a lot of flavor contained in that bite, and you probably want to use your best ingredients.  The presentation has to be appealing enough to make your dish stand out from dozens or more on the table.  And the taste has to fulfill the promise that the presentation makes.

Do you have some product or service offerings that are bite-sized?  Could you make it easier for a prospective new customer to say yes by allowing them to get to know your company in a way that relieves their risk and allows them to do a taste test of sorts?

How would your business be different if you focused only on helping clients make a first, small purchase - a taste test?  Then what would you do to build a loyal customer from that first encounter?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Getting past deja vu

Déja vu by DailyPic
Déja vu, a photo by DailyPic on Flickr.
It seems as though you've been here before.  There's an eerie feeling that you're eating the same thing, sitting in the same room, or hearing your companion talk about a subject that you've heard before - in exactly the same words.

Psychologists are studying the various types of deja vu - there's "already visited" that relates to unfamiliar locations and "already experienced" that relates to things you do.  The theories on the causes of deja vu vary - from temporal lobe problems to wish fulfillment to past life experiences.

Let's talk today, though, a bit less literally about deja vu.  A lot of what you think you're seeing over and over again is the result of habitual behavior.  You are seeing the same results because you're doing the same things.  The reasons behind the habits vary, but unless and until you identify them and make a point to change them, you'll continue to be locked in a cycle of deja vu.  You might not even be aware of some of your habits, because they are so ingrained that you engage in them without conscious thought.

Intentional Acquisition
Some of your routine behaviors were intentionally developed by you because at one time they were identified by you (or by someone else) as the appropriate actions to take.  You brush your teeth, look both ways before crossing the street, and tie your shoes according to an intentionally learned methodology.  Certain habits, though, reach a point of obsolescence.  New technologies, new methods, and new results require that you update your habits.  You may resist attempts to update, partly because the familiar is comfortable and partly because you worked so hard to perfect your current way of doing things that you're a bit concerned about whether you can cut it with the new methods.  Or you forget to incorporate new steps (hello dental floss!) whenever you're not paying full attention to what you're doing.

Unintentional Acquisition
You didn't consciously choose some of your habits.  Some of them were the best of the worst alternatives at one time, and you kept doing them even when more  and better alternatives became available.  Others of them were adaptations to hostile environmental conditions.  Examples of this include over-compliance with authority figures, immediately defensive reactions, or habits of thought regarding people who are different from you in some way.  Even though you didn't necessarily intend to acquire these habits, they have just as much potential for damaging your results as do the behaviors you intentionally incorporated.  And because you didn't necessarily actively choose them they might be harder to notice.

Getting Past Deja Vu
If you want to see something different tomorrow than you have seen today and yesterday, start with the result you're getting now and look upstream for the root causes of the result.  If you can identify a root cause and solve it you can prevent a recurrence.  This diagram is sometimes used to help to analyze root cause in the workplace:

Ultimately you have the most control over your own behavior, so that's a great place to start.  But if you have the opportunity or authority to change or influence procedures, policies, etc. you have an even broader opportunity to effect change.

You don't have to see the same things over and over again.  But unless you take your behavior off of autopilot for a while and switch it to manual - intentionally choosing - you are likely to see the same thing tomorrow that you're seeing today.

Summit partners with leaders who want to effect sustainable change.  This can involve helping companies identify the root causes of less-than-optimal results and implement improvements.  Or it can revolve around building support in people, process, and/or planning for unprecedented outstanding results. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Don't set this goal for your New Year's resolution!

Evergreen Delicacy:  Asparagus Fern by cobalt123
Evergreen Delicacy: Asparagus Fern,
a photo by 
cobalt123 on Flickr.
It might already be too late for you...you might already have done it.  You might have committed yourself, out of the best of intentions, to a resolution that will go by the wayside by next Friday.  This post is for you if you have set a goal or resolution that is "evergreen."

You might also call the evergreen goal the "go forth and sin no more" goal.  From here until eternity you will do fifty push-ups every morning, or you will resist the siren call of potato chips.  Nevermore will your desk be cluttered with unfinished work when you leave for the office, and your kitchen island will forevermore be spotless and uncluttered.  From now on, you resolve, your refrigerator will be free of little plastic containers filled with black and green mold-covered unidentifiable leftovers.

Evergreen goals are wrong for you for several reasons:

  • They expect a level of perfection that no human being will attain.  You, yes even you, are likely to have a few weak moments.  An evergreen goal will catch you, even if the weak moment is only ten seconds three years from now.  Gotcha!  Now you can go forward feeling like a failure.  One day, one time you don't do what you said you would do and your goal is shot.
  • They require a level of commitment that you are unlikely to make under the influence of adult beverages on New Year's Eve.  A commitment is different than an intention, and it's much stronger than a wish or fantasy.  A commitment is something you do even when it's not convenient, even when there are forces pulling you away from it, even when nobody is looking.  Even forever commitments (like marriages??) are sometimes proven to be more temporary than permanent.  Why, then, would you think that you will always, always, always, spend an hour a day at the gym?
  • You never get to feel the thrill of victory.  Sure, you had a good day, a good week, or even a good month.  But when you have set an evergreen goal, the rest of your life is still stretching before you, waiting for you to screw it up.  You need some opportunities to pat yourself on the back for a job well done, to officially notice that you have shown integrity by following words by actions.  That pesky evergreen goal doesn't have a finish line, so you don't get to do a dance or spike a ball.
  • They are often based upon "should" rather than "want to".  When you really want to do something, you find ways to do it.  New Year's resolutions are broken often enough because they aren't really important enough to the resolver to keep them.  It's possible that a person important in your life has told you that you MUST make some changes, and that you MUST stay changed.  Before you set an evergreen goal to be different from here forward, you need to determine whether you want to live by pleasing them or by being true to yourself (assuming those are two different things.)  
  • Many of them don't account for the "why".  It's hard enough to change habits of behavior for a short period of time, and when you say that you're changing forever you've upped the ante substantially.  The evergreen goal usually doesn't have a fully thought-through reason, either in the form of rewards to be attained or consequences avoided.  The upside or downside needs to be pretty compelling to be strong enough to continue to drive your behavior day after day, week after week, month after month.
Let's be clear.  Goals are good.  They provide focus for your behavior.  They help you to align your allocation of resources toward the ends that are important to you.  But don't set yourself up for failure by setting an evergreen goal.  Sorry, but you will sin down the road.  So think it through:
  1. Be specific, in behavioral and measurable terms, about what you are going to do.
  2. Give yourself a measurement time frame.  Chart your progress daily, weekly, etc. and give yourself kudos on the days and weeks that you achieve what you set out to achieve.
  3. Make sure that it's a "want to".
  4. Limit the number of goals you are pursuing at any one time to 3-5.  Otherwise your focus is spread too thinly.  Sometimes a difficult behavior change or consuming goal means that you only do that one for now.
You are perfect in your imperfection.  The fundamental premise of continuous improvement is that there is always improvement available to you, no matter your prior performance.  You are always a work in progress.  Your job is to be able to be tranquil in that reality and enthusiastic about your next step forward.  Happy New Year, and Happy Fresh Start!