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.

Legislators do your job – I have a dream

I have a dream of legislators working together. I have a dream that leaders like McConnell, Pelosi, Schumer, McCarthy and Pence will sit down with a to-do list and find common ground to pass needed legislation to help people. Stabilizing healthcare costs and addressing the opioid crisis, addressing deteriorated and needed infrastructure, providing better job retraining and community reinvestment, addressing the risks of climate change and addressing the increasing deficit and debt are a few priorities.

It is a dream I have. You may not agree with my priorities, but I hope you share my dream of our legislators being more concerned with doing their jobs than keeping their jobs.

Note: The above letter was forwarded to my newspaper opinion page. Please feel free to modify and use.

Good words, now let’s walk the talk

I have now seen South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Congressman Trey Gowdy interviewed twice on their book released this week called “Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country.” Scott who is Black and Gowdy who is White speak openly of their friendship.

I think it is excellent the two legislators are speaking of their relationship. I am delighted they are getting along well and feel their relationship can serve as a guide to better discussions. Yet, when asked if the same guide could help Congress, Gowdy spoke of the desire to win and the other side lose getting in the way of better relationships.

Frankly, I don’t buy that. I think they need to walk the talk in Congress. When anyone on their team is being uncivil, untruthful or callous, they need to call them out. I actually called each leaving a message with one and speaking with a staffer on the other.

I complimented their efforts and wished them well with their book. But, I said Americans want members of Congress to work together to solve problems. It matters not who wins or loses – it matters if we the people benefit. And, when someone denigrates another, which happens too often from the White House, they need to act like their fellow SC legislator Lindsey Graham did when he called the President on the carpet for his infamous remark about sh**hole countries.

Gowdy is retiring from office as still a young man saying he is tired of this zero-sum game of politics. To be frank, he played that game to the hilt, even as late as January with his role in the Congressman Devin Nunes’ memo which was highly political and sloppy work. On the flip side, while he does not believe the Presidenf colluded (see previous reference to political and sloppy work), he did say if the President is innocent, he should act like he is. Then there is his role in the endless Benghazi hearings, which was referred to by fellow Republicans Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell as a “witch hunt.”

So, seeing his name with this book was a little surprising. Yet, I will treat his intentions as a sincere effort and applaud both of their mission. They just have to be more than words. Words are cheap – we must walk the talk. We need them and their fellow legislators to walk the talk, as well.