The limitations of sequential thinking

What does sequential thinking mean, you might be asking? Many of us think in a sequential order. Basically, it means I cannot think about a certain thing, because it comes after what I need to do next. Sequential thinking is at odds with a working or living environment that demands a multi-tasking mindset.

When I say multi-tasking, I am not referring to doing more than one thing at one time, although that is its most common description. What I mean is having a list of multiple things to do and balancing the priority and times of when you plan to do them. It is akin to walking while juggling balls in the air. The key is to not drop any balls while you keep walking.

Let me use a few examples to emphasize my point. I may have a list of ten or twenty things to do. I receive information to do one of the items, but that item is not needed for a week. Sequential thinking would push doing that project until later in the week. But, what if you have a hard deadline and the information provided might be incomplete?

The military doctors and nurses coined an apt term called “triage.” So, a multi-tasking way to think of this would be to triage the information for the later project as an earlier step. Then, if it is incomplete, you could ask the sender to clarify or send additional input. Then, you can move onto other things while you wait.

Another example is moving forward with pieces of a project before having all the needed steps complete. One of the best project managers I have ever worked with would apportion a large report out in pieces for earlier completion. She would have folks working on producing the Appendix, Sections 5, 8, 11 and 14, e.g., while the analysis was being done to complete the key findings and recommendations. So, the supporting sections could be completed, so as to reduce the time crunch at the end once the analysis was done.

Although the last paragraph makes so much sense, it is not as widely practiced as you would think. Neither is the triaging concept, except in medical emergency settings. The other thing these two approaches avoid is the bottle-neck created by other projects and demands. And, in so doing, it enables deadlines to be better fulfilled.

As I write this, I recall a very demanding client. She could be a hard-ass on staff, but at the heart of her criticisms often was a legitimate one. If you told her a deadline, she expected you to meet it. The key was to give her a deadline that could be met, not in a vacuum, but in recognition that you had other things to do.

People like to please and hate telling people no. But, having been a consultant and client manager for ages, I would rather someone tell me they were too busy to help, forcing me to find another source, or avoid giving me too aggressive a deadline. This may not surprise people, but many deadlines that are not met are set by the person doing the work, not the client. Managing expectations is vital.

A favorite author, Malcolm Gladwell, confessed in an interview that he writes in an unusual way that works for him. He said he does not do all his research up front, so he outlines the idea, does some research, writes some, does more research, writes some more and so on. Why? Two reasons – he said he would get bored doing all the research, then writing. Plus, the research is fresher in his mind when he writes soon thereafter. He portions out the work in smaller more manageable segments.

Sequential thinking can get in the way of moving forward. I am not suggesting everyone will think like Gladwell or the best project manager I mention above, but think in terms of smaller, earlier steps to move things along.

True story example

One of the underlying themes of the Ukraine issue is the undercutting of diplomats doing a job without bothering to tell them what is going on without their knowledge. Setting aside the abuse of power and possible criminal activities, what the president did is just a poor leadership practice. A true example that happened to me might help illustrate this point.

I was client manager on a client relationship with a dear long term client. The client was looking to outsource some major internal work, which my company only did a small part. My client was asking me to help them source other providers, so I started to pull together a team to do so.

Without telling me, my company agreed to partner with a larger company to offer a proposal for the outsourcing. After pulling together a team, I was apprised at the last minute we were actually bidding on the project I was going to help source. Really? So, I apprised my client of the conflict of interest and we suggested he consider a competitor for the sourcing work.

None of this had to happen. My company could have told me up front what was going down without me being embarassed. Plus, it embarassed our bidding partner as they got wind of my sourcing efforts. And, it embarassed my main contact.

This came down from the top. In my or any business, you don’t leave your people hanging. You arm them with information and tools to do the job. You want people to have your back, not go around you snd not tell you they are so doing.

This is what was done by the US president to his diplomats in the field dealing with Ukraine. They were playing a hand they were dealt, but were not informed Rudy Guiliani was playing at another card table.

I have said before, not standing up for your people is poor leadership. So, is not informing them of what is happening. But, it does not just affect us. Ukraine and others wonder “who speaks for America?” Who does?

That leadership thing

Just because someone is in a position of leadership it does not mean he or she is a leader. Leadership is earned. A person put in a position of leadership may have a brief honeymoon period, but it can be wasted in an instant.

The military has an unstated rule. The troops eat first. This is a terrific metaphor. They are doing the heavy lifting, so a leader will do what he or she can to make sure the troops are taken care of.

A few rules of thumb to judge what leaders looks like:

– do they defend their team members or do they remain quiet?

– do they throw people under the bus when mistakes occur?

– do they deflect credit to others or assume all the credit?

– do they hide from blame when things go poorly?

– do they treat people with dignity and seek input from multiple sources?

– are they cool under pressure which calms anxious followers?

– do they represent our better angels or our worst?

My son and I watched the excellent movie “Midway” about s highly pivotal naval battle in World War II – if the US lost, the Japanese would have more impunity to attack cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. A key part of the movie was the need to trust intelligence code breakers. Admiral Nimitz (the recently appointed Pacific fleet commander) visited the code breakers to confirm their confidence and methods, asking many questions. It helped him trust their input as a key reason for our success at Midway was we knew the attack was coming on the day it came.

Nimitz went to the sources. It should be noted these same sources told his predecessor of concerns in advance of Pearl Harbor. His predecessor did not heed their concerns and be more alert on December 7, 1941.

With the complexity of our world, leaders need to be editors of lots of information. There is a humility in knowing how much you don’t know. Be very wary of people in positions of leadership who convey a false sense of awareness. There is a Texas term for big talkers – they are all hat and no cattle. They have a big head, but don’t have many steers.

It should be noted an increasing number of corporate leaders are more introverted. The business is more complex and varied, so understanding the moving parts is important. I mention this as we should not assume someone who is more outgoing is a better leader.

We are craving better leaders. The better ones may be the ones who look less like the part.

A few questions to ponder – October 27, 2019

A couple of questions to ponder:

– why is the US president directing the US Attorney General and why is he aware of findings?

– why is it so hard for ardent Trump fans to believe hard-working, diligent ambassadors who have served both Republican and Democrat presidents?

– why are we not celebrating the political courage of these ambassadors who are testifying while knowing the president is very vindictive?

– why are not more questions being asked of AG William Barr who white-washed a more damning Mueller report?

– why did the GOP stormtroopers brag that they had not paid attention to what these heroes were testifying and had not read the Mueller report?

– why are legislators OK with a morally corrupt and likely criminally corrupt president?

– why do two Republican lawyer groups say the impeachment inquiry is justified?

– why do Trump followers think the ten plus year economic growth in the US started January, 2017? Could it be they believed his lie how horrible things were and unemployment was as high as 42%? It is amazing how it dropped to beneath 5% after the inauguration.

Mind you, I am glad economic growth continued, but what concerns me is we borrowed from our future to make a pretty good economy a little better for a little while. Instead of paying down debt in good years, our deficit climbed 26% to $984 billion for the fiscal year ending 9/30/2019. This is the fourth straight year of increases. We are over $22 trillion in debt today and it will be near $34 trillion in eight years sans change.

Trump said the economy will suffer if he is not reelected. The truth is the economy has been softening for more than a year and will continue to soften next and the following year and regardless of whether Trump is reelected.

Just a few questions to ponder.

A man called Ove – a curmudgeon worth a deeper look

The title of bestselling author Fredrik Backman’s book “A man called Ove” or the reference to the subject may not be inviting, but give this book a chance. We all have curmudgeons in our lives and sometimes we may even channel our inner curmudgeon. But, why do some people act the way they do?

People Magazine opines on Ove, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel new sympathy for the curmudgeons in your life.” I agree.

Backman introduces Ove in real time, so you will start off with a full-frontal view of a curmudgeon. But, through changes in his daily life and a series of reveals as Ove remembers the good and bad in his life, you gain a new perspective on how he has evolved to be who he is. You will learn Ove has a tough outer shell, but different layers are buried beneath.

To avoid any spoilers, let me mention what is written on the back cover to invite you to read the book. Ove’s daily routine is disrupted when chatty new neighbors with two young daughters announce they have arrived one November morning by accidentally backing their U-Haul trailer over Ove’s mailbox.

Their interactions and related others take an ice-pick to Ove’s icy outer shell. The book is an easy read, but do give Ove a chance. Your initial reaction to Ove will be like everyone else’s whom the character meets in the book. So, bring your proverbial ice pick along. And, some tissue.

Many successful people have failed

Recently, my wife and I watched three separate music documentaries – the eight part series on Country Music, one on Motown and one on David Bowie. What I find interesting is how many artists had to fight failure to get a chance and gain eventual success. These failures reminded me of other similar stories I have been exposed to.

Garth Brooks, one of the biggest selling artists of any genre, was turned down by every studio in Nashville. The night of the most recent “no, thank you,” Brooks performed at a small venue and that same record producer was in the audience and saw something.

David Bowie made records and even albums, but they went nowhere for years. He never lost hope. After much experimentation, he came up with the idea about a man in space. “Ground control to Major Tom…” became the lyric that peeked our interest in “A Space Oddity.”

The Beatles intrigued a young record producer named George Martin, but he recognized the band needed to practice to learn how to play. Many people don’t know that a fifth Beatle named Stu Sutcliffe was very inexperienced. So, Martin sent them to Hamburg, Germany to play seven shows six nights a week. They had to learn new material.

The Supremes led by Diana Ross were called the “no-hit Supremes” for years as they could not break through. Eventually, Berry Gordy and his writers came up with the right song, “Baby, baby. Where did our love go…”

Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time. Yet, Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team before making the team the following  year. As Dean Smith, Jordan’s college coach would say defending his decision to start Jordan as a freshman, “I put him on the blue practice team and they won. I put him on the white practice team and they won. It did not take a genius to realize we had a better chance to win if he played.”

Steve Jobs was successful with the Apple, but failed to develop the next generation machine. Fortunately, while the team he led was failing, another Apple team plodded along and developed the Macintosh. Jobs took it over and it made history. We should also note, Jobs was later fired from his own company, but  returned to save them and launch the hand held I-series of devices.

Hewlett-Packard failed at its first business. It was a bowling alley scorekeeping system. Yet, they created an organization that allowed the development of new products and were hugely succesful with computers and printers.

Everyone fails at something or even more than a few things. The key is what do you do next. When life knocks you down, you have to get up, dust yourself off and move forward. Or, as Winston Churchill famously said, “When you are walking through hell, the key is to keep walking.”

Renee Zellweger is superb in “Judy”

My wife and I saw the marvelous movie about the a brief period in the career of Judy Garland simply called “Judy.” Renee Zellweger plays the part so well, you believe she is Judy. I encourage you to go see it, but do take some tissue.

The movie does a nice job of flipping back to past moments in Garland’s life to provide some context. It adds a great deal to the film and makes you pull for the adult Judy even more, in spite of her challenges.

The movie is directed by Rupert Goold and is based on the broadway play called “End of the Rainbow,” by Peter Quilter. Quilter and Tom Edge wrote the movie screenplay. Darci Shaw plays the young Judy, while key parts are played by Jessie Buckley who caretakes Judy while in London, Finn Wittrock who plays a young beau, Michael Gambon who plays the producer of the London show, Rufus Sewell who plays Sidney Luft (the father of two of her children), and Royce Pierreson who plays the pianist/ conductor. Her two girls are played by Gemma-Leah Devereaux (Liza Minelli) and Bella Ramsey (Lorna Luft). A key role is played by Andy Nyman as a Judy fan in London.

But, this is Zellweger’s movie to shine as Judy. We knew she could sing from “Chicago,” but she adds flavor to Judy’s older voice lessened some by smoking, drinking and other issues. The movie covers a five week period when she ventures to London for a series of performances at a large club venue. I will leave off the rationale and mission of the gig, as that is an important part of the movie.

Go see it and tell me what you think. For spoiler alerts, I will ask future readers to not read the comments.