Essay

Shut up and Color! But maybe Color Outside the Lines… it’s the key to moving forward

The Army has a saying. Actually, the Army has lots of sayings, but a really common one is, “shut up and color.” I think this is a throwback to kindergarten when teachers would implore kids to focus on their artwork in a vain attempt to gain a few minutes of quiet.

In the Army it usually means, “I understand that you don’t like the order you were just given. Go do it anyway.” Or, it is a self-imposed resignation as in “I was going to push back on this thing because it doesn’t make sense but the guy in charge was really hot about it. I decided to just shut up and color.”

Either way there seems to be a lot of crayon work going on.

I’ve always liked coloring. When I was a kid someone got me the box with “64 Different Brilliant Colors” and the built-in sharpener. I could color anything. But mostly my sisters and I colored in coloring books. My older sister was considered the artist. She always picked the best colors, and was extremely careful about keeping the colors inside the lines. Her “artwork” was definitely “fridge-worthy” and often occupied a central spot on Grandma’s old Frigidaire.

My younger sister didn’t have the patience to stay inside the lines, nor did she really care if the colors made sense on the picture. “I like purple,” she’d say. So what if the drawing was of a dog? Her artwork usually found its way somewhere other than the fridge.

I tried to be like my older sister, but I would lose interest in the exactness required to comply with the lines given to me. I was restless, and wanted more action than was on the page. I would deviate from the prescribed pattern, and draw in new things that weren’t there originally. It made the drawing more interesting to me, and way less mundane. It also failed to make the fridge most of the time.

Later it dawned on me that anyone who colored it the way they were supposed to could replicate real art. Get the right paint-by-numbers kit and you, too, could paint the Mona Lisa. But you were never actually going to be an artist that way. You see, artists create things. Coloring books and paint-by-numbers are ways of replicating what someone creative already did.

I wanted to create. The lines, to me, were more of a suggestion, so they were optional.

In the grown-up world, the coloring book lines we have to color inside are the rules, policies, and procedures our organizations hand down to us. We are expected to make fridge-worthy art by complying with the pre-set procedure outlined in some regulation or handbook somewhere, carefully crafted by a committee.

Our education system and most of our workforce training programs love the color-inside-the-lines approach. Do it just so, and it will always be right. Be compliant. Obey the lines and the process, and you will produce quality. Of course, this pre-supposes that the person (or, more likely, committee) who put the lines there originally was actually an artist. Ever seen art done by a committee?

There is certainly a time and place to strictly comply with the process, to color inside the lines. Pre-flight checks for my aircraft crew? Yes, please follow that checklist carefully. Reassembling the break line on my car? Now is not a good time to be creative.

Putting safety aside, there are so many times where our bureaucratic procedures are followed as if they are sacred. As if we won’t get our picture on the fridge if we deviate even a little. This is ok if you are trying to replicate greatness, but most bureaucratic processes are established in an attempt to eliminate risk, not produce anything great. (Here is a shock: our bureaucracy was not designed by Leonardo da Vinci).

So what happens if we color outside the lines, just a little? Well, it might not look right. It might make people think you’re amateurish and you’ll never get your stuff on the fridge.

Or you may find that it works better.

You might have made what PBS art show host Bob Ross calls, “a happy mistake” that gives you an opportunity to move things in a different, possibly better direction. The question is, if you don’t stray outside the lines now and then, how are you going to improve what you’re doing?

Which begs the question, of course, “Who put the lines there in the first place?” and “what assumptions were they working under when the lines went in?” “Have conditions changed to the point that those assumptions are no longer valid?” By dogmatically coloring exclusively inside the boundaries handed to you, you have conceded that the person who put those lines there knows more than you do about this specific circumstance.

I think the world needs a few more artists with a healthy suspicion of pre-drawn lines. If the rules, processes, or procedures are holding us back from achieving our purpose, they need to be crossed. If the picture looks better after you crossed them, maybe we should move the lines so others can produce the same, higher quality drawing. Or maybe, in some cases, we need to give our creative people the occasional blank canvas to work with. Who knows what kind of art they will produce?

When a process is going to lead you to a bad decision, stop. Consider coloring outside the lines. When a procedure leads us to waste time or money with no return on that investment, maybe consider that the line is in the wrong spot… go ahead and color over there where it makes sense.

If we don’t color outside the lines now and then, we are never going to know what our picture might have turned out like. There are so many possibilities if we don’t constrain ourselves with lines that are ill-considered or outdated. Challenge them. Cross them. And be bold!

 

Essay

Throwing People Under the Bus… 5 Tips to a Better Office Culture

Coming out of a contentious meeting where one executive’s proposal was discussed and rejected, I overheard the dejected leader chastise a colleague for “throwing me under the bus” for disagreeing with a proposal. I’ve heard this expression for years, and have never really understood where this particular idiom came from. Is there really a long-standing habit of physically shoving people underneath urban transportation? Is this so commonplace that it has become a cliché? If the metaphorical tram is moving, this would obviously be fatal, which, I suppose, is what the victim of some public criticism feels he or she is experiencing.

And research reveals that there is a far greater threat to pedestrians than busses: light trucks and passenger cars account for far more deaths than do busses (84% of vehicle-pedestrian incidents fell into these categories), but “you threw me under a light truck” just doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess.

According to my vast research (20 minutes on Google and Youtube) the phrase really connotes betrayal by a friend or colleague, especially in a public way. I suppose it’s because it is easiest to push someone under a bus if you’re walking alongside them and surprise them at the optimum moment.

But why? Why is criticism or even disagreeing, especially in public, so egregious as to be compared to violent homicide? Why do people feel betrayed or victimized simply because a friend or colleague doesn’t support every idea they have? Perhaps we are being a bit too sensitive here.

It may be because it is rare for people to give truly candid feedback to each other. When you aren’t used to hearing criticism, it can be startling, and it’s easy to become defensive.

Of course it matters how it is delivered. If the feedback is delivered in a mean-spirited way then, sure, it can feel like you’re being run over. But that’s not usually how it’s meant, especially between teammates. If everyone is vested in the success of the organization and pointed in the same direction, critical, candid feedback should be welcome.

I think we waste a lot of time being sensitive about how people might take our disagreement.

This is a characteristic of the corporate culture of your organization: whether people value candid feedback, or whether every disagreement feels like attempted manslaughter.

And this doesn’t just happen in the conference room. This lack of candidness often exists between managers and employees. Many managers are unwilling to give their employees the tough feedback they need to improve. When leaders fail to deal with employee shortfalls in a straightforward manner they put undue pressure on themselves and their teams to cover that shortfall. And, just as bad, they cheat the employee out of the chance to improve.

Making up for an underperforming employee is exhausting, and unfair. But without candid feedback they are unlikely to change. Sugercoating things does your employee and their teammates a disservice.

Of course, delivery matters. Employee feedback needs to be focused on behavior, not characteristics, and project critiques need to focus on specific aspects that need improvement, not on the team members’ personal shortfalls.

But creating a corporate culture that values candid feedback isn’t easy. Cries of motor-coach homicide will abound as soon as you start trying to provide people with pointed, useful feedback. Here are a few pointers that may help:

  1. Model Honesty. The first thing leaders need to do to shape that culture is to model honesty. Leaders must be candid with each other publicly, and must give their subordinates extremely honest feedback.
  2. Acknowledge feedback. Sometimes you have to realize that your idea isn’t always the best one, even if you are the highest paid person in the room. You have to encourage people to candidly disagree with you, and must acknowledge when someone has provided useful feedback, even if you don’t like it. Model that and it will become contagious. Never kill the messenger (with or without a bus). The first time you respond poorly to criticism is the last time you’ll get honest feedback.
  3. Don’t over-referee office friction. When someone complains about an employee, ask them, “What did she say when you told her that?”

    So many times, they will respond, “oh I couldn’t say that to her!”

    Why not? If you want behavior to change you must be honest about it.

  1. Work on delivery. It’s easy to sound rude when you are being candidly critical (this is one of my weaknesses… ask anyone who has worked with me or been on a team I’ve coached). Figure out a way to be candid without crushing people.
  2. Know when to keep candid feedback private. We should feel free to criticize ideas publicly, but if criticizing someone’s behavior, keep that behind closed doors. There is a big difference between being pointedly candid and embarrassing people.

Too often we waste tremendous energy and resources doing the wrong things or doing things the wrong way simply because we lack the intestinal fortitude to be candid with each other. We too often don’t want to be accused of “throwing people under the bus” so we refrain from saying what needs to be said.

Healthy corporate cultures, like good relationships, thrive on trust. Trust comes from honesty.

Leaders are responsible for their organization’s culture. If you have a benignly polite culture and want to get better results, try modeling candidness. Don’t accept that being honest with people is akin to vehicular manslaughter. Being honest with each other doesn’t create victims, it creates trust, and trust builds stronger organizations.

Articles, Essay

Now Hiring: Interview Principles to make Better Selections

Hire the Best Person for the job, not just the best interviewer!

In a large, risk-averse bureaucracy there is a tendency to create processes that try to minimize risk. In our hiring process we have reduced the job interview to one that values fairness over effectiveness. Every applicant is asked the exact same questions in the exact same order. Followup questions are verboten. If the applicant doesn’t understand the question, the interviewer repeats the question verbatim.

It’s as if we don’t really want them to work here.

Our most valuable resource is high quality people. To continue our success, we must continue to find, recruit, and hire the best possible people to do the essential work we do. It is inconsistent with this goal to conduct interviews in a manner that doesn’t contribute to it. Too often, our interviews are cold, uninviting, and exhausting. We must change that.

The following principles and guidelines are helpful steps in the right direction. Continue reading

Essay

Veteran’s Day Speech 2018

I had the honor of addressing a crowd of veterans and our community to commemorate the 100th anniversary of signing of the Armistice ending World War I. The text is printed below.

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for coming out today to honor those men and women, past and present who have served in our Armed Forces.

This occasion is a special one, as it was a hundred years ago today that our forces in the Army Expeditionary Force serving in France heard the news that Germany had signed the Armistice. We are a long ways from the days of horse drawn artillery and biplanes, and it is hard to imagine the sacrifices our doughboys made during that terrible conflict, or the exhilaration, relief and excitement those men and women felt just a hundred years ago today.

A year later, on November 11, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end to World War I. In this proclamation, President Wilson spoke about this Nation’s contribution to the conflict in Europe. “…We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with – solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory…”

That’s tough to follow

Continue reading

Essay, Story

Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

This starts by knowing how the game is played and knowing all of the rules, both written and unwritten, and then either exploiting or breaking them.

 

I love practicing jujitsu. It is a great art and sport, and helps build flexibility, strength, endurance, and confidence. The practice of jujitsu is a journey, and very few who study the art can claim to master it. I, unfortunately am in the majority here. As a mere novice in this art I frequently find myself humbled by the speed and skill of others.

One of the people I roll with is a guy named Ben. Ben is a bit of a freak of nature as he is older than me but remains one of the biggest, strongest, fittest people in the academy. I’m probably giving up about 30 pounds when I square off with Ben, and despite what TV tells you, strength and size make a difference. The other problem I have with Ben is his jujitsu is also better than mine.

When I roll with Ben I have no illusions that I will tap him out. My goal is to survive the five minutes without getting choked out. Sometimes I make it.

Continue reading

Essay

Get the Rock out of the Road: Leading Change amidst resistance

As a brand new Lieutenant I was welcomed to my first battalion by a senior lieutenant named Ed who was getting ready to leave the unit. He had been there three years and was headed back to the states to get promoted and go to Captain School. (It wasn’t really called that, but most of my followers aren’t familiar with the Engineer Officer Advanced Course, and I though Captain School sounded cooler).

Ed was full of wisdom. And since he was older and wiser and I was (as my platoon sergeant so eloquently put it) still wet behind the ears, I listened intently.

He offered advice when I attempted to buy an extra large rucksack. “Why do you need that?” To carry more stuff in the field. “We’re a mechanized unit. You have a vehicle for that.” I know, but we may need to dismount and walk a ways. “If you walk more than 300 yards you should fire your driver.” Ed was good at pointing out the obvious stuff for me.

Continue reading

Essay

Bailing Water with a Cup

Three guys out fishing start taking on water. The first guy to notice it grabs the nearest thing he sees that can bail water: a tiny little cup. He starts bailing furiously, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. The other two haven’t noticed yet, as they are busy fishing. The first guy assumes this is a temporary problem and keeps bailing, all the while looking back at his rod in case a fish bites.

It starts getting worse.

The second guy realizes there is a problem, and he, too, starts bailing. He has a red Solo cup, so he moves more water than the first guy, but he still isn’t making a lot of headway. He doesn’t want to leave his fishing rod, either, so is pretty distracted from the bailing effort. Every once in a while he gets a bite, stops bailing, and tries to land the fish. He finds it is more difficult to net the fish when you have to rummage in the water in the bottom of the boat for the net.

The third guy is late to the party. He has been solely focused on fishing and finally catches on when he can’t get to the live well because of the water they are taking on. Something has to be done! He grabs a bucket and starts bailing, too, still with one eye on his rod.

Continue reading