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Loopy Things We Do (and other observations about life at work)

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Loopy Things We Do (and other observations about life at work) is a collection of short articles that give tips, insights and new perspectives on life in the modern workplace. You can read each one in a few minutes, and quickly gain new insights that can transform how you experience life at work.

Have you ever Skip to the Details:
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found yourself sitting in a meeting, listening for the third time to drivel you just couldn't believe people would actually say out loud, and wondering how much longer this would go on until they finally agreed to what anyone with half a brain knew they'd have to do anyway? And then groaned to yourself when you realized that your next meeting would be more of the same?

King penguins at South Georgia IslandOr have you ever had the kind of "forehead-slapping moment" when you suddenly realized why the group didn't go for your last suggestion, and then wondered how you could possibly have been so naïve as to have proposed it in the first place?

Loopy is a collection of articles from the 2005 and 2006 issues of Point Lookout, my weekly email newsletter of tips, insights and perspectives that help people in dynamic problem-solving organizations find better ways to work with each other. It gives concrete, nuts-and-bolts methods for dealing with real-life situations. You can also get the collection from 2001 and 2002, the collection from 2003 and 2004, or the collection from 2001 through 2010.

Loopy Things We Do makes a wonderful and unique gift for a friend, a colleague, or a spouse who faces any of the ordinary — and many of the not-so-ordinary — challenges of working today.

Some sample essays

On Beginnings
A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to letdown when our hopes or expectations aren't met. How can we handle beginnings more powerfully?
Emergency Problem Solving
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
Obstacles to Compromise
Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?

Table of contents

Here's a chapter-by-chapter summary of what you'll find in this book.

Click the folder icons to reveal (or hide) individual chapter content summaries, or:

A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to letdown when our hopes or expectations aren't met. How can we handle beginnings more powerfully?
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
The quality of an organization's culture is the key to high performance. An organization with a blaming culture can't perform at a high level, because its people can't take reasonable risks. How can you tell whether you work in a blaming culture?
Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring your working day in larger chunks.
To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden costs.
For many of us, taking a vacation can be a burden. We ask ourselves, "How can I get away now?" And sometimes we have the answer: "I can't." How can we feel relaxed about taking time off?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance. And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path. We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though — it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse. Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on might just help keep you untwisted.
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate you to find another way.
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving, and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
How we deal with adversity can make the difference between happiness and something else. And how we deal with adversity depends on how we see it.
Condescension is one reason why healthy conflict becomes destructive. It's a conversational technique that many use without thinking, and others use with aggressive intention. Either way, it can hurt everyone involved.
Condescending remarks hurt. When we feel that pain, we often feel the urge to retaliate, even when retaliation might not be appropriate. Our responses are more effective when we understand where condescending remarks come from.
Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.
Your point of view — or reference frame — affects what you see, and how you experience the world around you. By choosing a reference frame consciously, you can see things differently, and open a universe of new choices.
When things go badly, many of us experience stress, and we might indulge various appetites in harmful ways. Some of us say things like "My boss is driving me nuts," or "She made me so angry." These explanations are rarely legitimate.
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if we get the bad news first.
Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my personal collection.
At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships, and create an atmosphere of fear.
Empire builders create bases of power within the larger organization. Typically, they use these domains to advance personal or provincial agendas. What are the characteristics of empires? How can we navigate through or around them?
Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
Within a week after we've learned some new tool or technique, sometimes even less, we're back to doing things the old way. It's as if the training never even happened. Why? And what can we do to change this?
Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we "know" just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
When we seek those accountable for a particular failure, we risk blaming them instead, because many of us confuse accountability with blame. What's the difference between them? How can we keep blame at bay?
Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
How we see things influences how we see things, almost like a filter or sunglasses. What are your filters?
Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
Normally, you terminate or reassign team members who actually inhibit progress. Here are some helpful insights and tactics to use when termination or reassignment is impossible.
Look around your office. Look around your home. Very likely, some of your belongings are useless and provide neither enjoyment nor cause for contemplation. Where does this stuff come from? Why can't we get rid of it?
At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing more effectively?
In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect it if we know their techniques.
We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
It's time we all began to take seriously the warning about a possible influenza pandemic. Whether or not your organization has a plan, you can do much to reduce your own chances of infection, and the chances of mass infection, by adopting a set of practices known as social distancing.
There's nothing like an injury or illness to teach you some life lessons. Here are some things I learned recently when I temporarily lost some of my independence.
It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
Some employees deliver performance episodically, while some deliver steady, but barely adequate performance. Either way, they keep their managers drained and anxious, on the "knife edge" of terminating them. How can you detect knife-edge performers, and what can you do about them?
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
Successful, persuasive presentations involve a whole lot more than PowerPoint skills. What does it take to present persuasively, with power?
Taking political risks is part of the job, especially if you want the challenges and rewards that come with increased responsibility. That's fair. But some people manage political risks by offloading them onto subordinates. Be certain that the risk burden you carry is really your own — and that you carry all of it yourself.
When a team works to solve a problem, it is the people of that team who do the work. Remembering that we're all people — and all different people — is an important key to success.
Up and down the org chart, you can find bits of business wisdom about motivating people. We generally believe these theories without question. How many of them are true? How many are myths? What are some of these myths and why do they persist?
Keeping a journal about your work can change how you work. You can record why you did what you did, and why you didn't do what you didn't. You can record what you saw and what you only thought you saw. And when you read the older entries, you can see patterns you might never have noticed any other way.
Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving organizations.
Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us are, but are you doing all you can to make it happen? Start with a focus on you.
Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us do, judging by the number of Web pages that talk about promotions, getting promoted, or asking for promotions. What you do to get a promotion depends on what you're aiming for.
Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
If you want a promotion in line — a promotion to the next supervisory level in your organization — what should you do now to make it come about? What risks are there?
After the boss commits even a few enormous blunders, some of us conclude that he or she is just incompetent. We begin to worry whether our careers are safe, whether the company is safe, or whether to start looking for another job. Beyond worrying, what else can we do?
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
When leaders want to change organizational directions, processes, or structures, some questions arise: How much change is too much change? Here's a look at one constraint: the risk to management credibility.
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
Throughout the workday, we interact with each other on many levels. Some exchanges are so common and ritualized that we're no longer aware of them. If we revise these rituals slightly, we can add some zing to our lives.
Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore well-being and comity within the organization.
Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.

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