Spur of the moment or long term purpose: when pinballs meet bulldozers


In working environments, one of the conundrums in personal and organisational knowledge management is the balance between following one’s ‘spur of the moment’ intuition and pursuing one’s longer term intent and purpose.

Balancing plans and opportunities is finding a balance between the pinball effect and the bulldozer drive

Balancing plans and opportunities is finding a balance between the pinball effect and the bulldozer drive

Planning and executing work then becomes a game of pinballs and bulldozers, where pinballs are projected in all directions, attracted by signals and rebounding on opportunities that arise, and bulldozers moving forward with a plan and avoiding derailing from their plan, no matter what.

Of course, we are neither pinballs nor bulldozers: we all evolve along that continuum and tend to mesh the two ends as we see fit.

At a personal level that is entirely ok. But when a complex situation requires different people to align their operating mode, complications arise. Here are a few instances of these that I or others I know have faced at work in the past 10 years:

  • Feeling hopeless and prey to everyone else’s agenda and actions – literally like a pinball sent in all directions, trying to cope with travel, backlog, email piles and the rest of it;
  • Planning work without keeping any open slot and feeling defeated at the end of the week for not having been able to do it all because the plan did not leave enough room for imponderables… ;
  • Spending the entire week meeting people and having conversations, only to find it a struggle to actually write stuff or do things, and perhaps – over time – slightly losing interest or ability to do that;
  • Being a victim to one’s email inbox and social media and responding to all of these on the spot;
  • Being under pressure to deliver and having to adjust one’s schedule to high level demands or encounters with moral pressure to execute, even if this means working systematically in the weekends or evenings and you promised yourself to keep a healthy work-private life balance;
  • Dealing with colleagues who find it natural to work every night, every weekend – as it is their way to cope with work pressure – as they expect you to do the same;
  • Being accused of being inflexible and not open to meeting people because you’re working on some deadline and are focusing on what you planned to deliver rather than what comes up;
  • Continuing on your trajectory (business as usual) without realising it’s not what you should be doing…

“When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging” (Will Rogers)

This post is as much therapeutic as it is reflexive. Time to look at how we collectively deal with our ability and inclination towards planning and seizing opportunities…

On a personal level…

Personal effectiveness survey gurus like Stephen Covey (and his habits of highly effective people) or Leo Babauta and his zen techniques to keep a balance, both insist on intent, purpose, planning and carving time out for quality work.

This is at the heart of my own approach to personal effectiveness. Work just goes on and on like a treadmill and if you don’t step back and look around once in a while, you might miss your purpose, forget what really gives you energy and what little steps you should be putting together to achieve a greater goal.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should just focus on that path and never step out of it. The keys to finding a balance might lie in:

  • Carpe Diem now or later?

    Carpe Diem now or later?

    Enjoying the moments as they come. Carpe diem (seize the day). It is probably the most important balancing mechanism to appreciate what you are doing at every step of your way – where mindfulness becomes the guiding path…

  • Reflecting regularly (every day? every week? after every important happening or event?) to see what works or not, what gives you energy or not, where you might change your approach regarding tiny details of your every day life, work, planning and enjoying – simple after action reviews can be a powerful mechanism for that;
  • Reflecting deeply (and particularly applying third loop learning in practice) to inquire about your own sense of purpose (and for those who wish, destiny) and what might be the next wave we ride;
  • Planning accordingly but knowing at heart that we don’t have all answers, that we don’t have the gift of foresight and that we have to remain open to what comes along the way, as signals that might take us for a better turn on our life path, and definitely keeping open slots for serendipity, creativity, seemingly unproductive time…
  • Avoiding – if we mind the pinball effect – to fall prey to every notification, signal, email, social media message or else that keeps popping up visually, aurally and kinesthetically (through the vibrating effect of a message popping on our phone)… Every sign of distraction like this might keep us away from finding more meaningful answers and questions that lie in longer term focus and discipline.

Collectively…

How do our operating wheels fit with one another? (credits Pbase.com)

How do our operating wheels fit with one another? (credits Pbase.com)

 

Collective effectiveness is a lot about how everyone’s operating wheels fit into one another and finding solutions for it has a lot to do with negotiating collective conventions. Some pointers here might be…

To agree on the long-term objectives and the short-term necessities of the team and organise work accordingly – following a broad main line – not the route that will be followed step by step but the map that connects starting point and final destination, with an idea of some stop-overs. This requires regular communication and is harder done than said…

Similarly to personal efforts, to regularly reflect on the objectives and operating mode of the collective and to assess what needs to happen to make this collective work and bring the best of its abilities to the fore. If unwanted/unexpected/unplanned signals drive too much attention away from the main added value of that collective, it might be good to reduce these opportunities.

To embrace ideas that stem from the collective’s individual practices, and to allow some time to sift through the experience and assess what might be the collective value of that individual practice. This is typically the case with one person trying a new social network and inviting their colleagues to reflect upon the potential for the whole team to use it (when, why, for what purpose, how etc.)? There is much value in exploration, it just needs to be assessed collectively at some point.

To gauge, as a team or organisation, the need for focus or exploration. This is to ask to what extent the collective needs to remain open to opportunities that come along the way (because it really needs to bring in a whiff of external perspectives) or needs to focus on its current pipeline because it already has well enough logical and useful work underway.

To discuss collectively how to deal with over work, work-life balance and what colleagues can expect from each other when it comes to weekend and evening work requests or attending to unexpected conversations when there are expectations to deliver outputs.

To agree on planned outputs and collective responsibilities to deliver these. Once that agreement is made it becomes easier to dedicate additional time and efforts to unexpected and spontaneous happenings. So long as it remains each individual’s workload the collective remains trapped in entropy and if it remains solely the management’s prerogative, commitment to deliver might be limited.

To reflect collectively on what (and sometimes who) distracts the collective’s plans and brings along opportunities that might indeed be very helpful or simply noise that reduces the collective’s productivity and purpose. And discussing what would be the practical implications of adapting the collective schedule to respond to opportunities and how it would be received in the wider ecosystem of which that collective is part (e.g. a team within a broader organisation).

There will likely never be a full balance between various individuals’ approaches and the needs of the collective when it comes to planning and opening to unexpected magic, but we might do much worse than talking, reflecting about it and acting upon collective conventions.

One thing’s for sure: conventions and cultures evolve and we should remain alert to these changes that affect our strategies. Together, we might see the hole we’re digging before it gets too deep…

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2 thoughts on “Spur of the moment or long term purpose: when pinballs meet bulldozers

  1. Thank you Carmen!
    Indeed, the idea is to bring bulldozers and pinballs to turn them into birds: at times flying high and seizing the winds, and at times stopping by, hopping around, looking around etc. True also that we work with very many different personalities, adding to the balancing act in this. But indeed reflection and a purpose to focus on joint intent do help in this sense!
    Thanks again for your comment 🙂

  2. Enjoyed reading your blog. Very relevant for me personally and in the context of working in teams. Reflective practice (and standing still to listen) is so critical for learning and for deciding where your personal and collective energies need to go next. For innovation, as you point out, experimentation, periodic joint assessment and refocussing are very valuable.
    It’s also important to realise that we are working with different personalities and personal comfort zones regarding uncertainty. So, reflection can help us connect both to our own motivations and to the larger group’s goals, which would hopefully feel more like a natural flow than a bulldozer or pinball.

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