Thinker’s Block

I love my subconscious. It always seems to be on, even when I am not. It does have its drawbacks. I suspect that it is responsible for my fear of spiders, but I can’t prove it. I didn’t know I had a fear of Spiders until I saw the movie “Arachnophobia” some years back. About half way through the movie I couldn’t stand to have my feet on the floor of the darkened theater because I thought I felt things on my legs. I guess that is the price I have to pay for having an active subconscious. But I know it is always there, ticking away. “Ticking” makes it sound like my subconscious works like some sort of fine Swiss watch. I am pretty sure it doesn’t do that either. It actually seems to go in fits and starts, and leaps and bounds. I have also learned to trust it almost implicitly when it comes to business issues and finding answers.

When we are faced with an issue or a problem it seems to be our nature to obsess or grind on it until we have a solution. In general this approach will usually work. The conscious application of experience and knowledge, focused and brought to bear on a finite and defined problem will usually yield a workable solution and good results. We learned this by studying for and taking examinations in school. We learned the basics and the tenets of our various disciplines and then tried to apply them to the questions posed to us to see if we knew how to properly apply them, not just memorized them. This was a good process to use when you knew going in that there was a “correct” answer to be found. Hopefully we have brought these good solutioning habits into our business environments.

But what happens when you do everything you are supposed to do, and the solution does not present itself? In business you are not assured that there is ever a “correct” answer to be found. Perhaps the best you can do is finding an answer that is not as bad as any of the others. You gather the facts and check the data. You understand the needs and availabilities, costs and prices, supplies and demands. You have got it. Just like all the previous times. But for whatever reason unlike all the other times, the answer to your issue this time is just not there.

You have the dreaded Thinkers Block.

I call it thinkers block because for the most part we are all knowledge workers. When a writer finds that they are unable to write for any reason, it is usually referred to a “Writer’s Block”. It only goes along the same lines of reasoning that if a knowledge worker is unable to perform their knowledge based work they must have Thinker’s Block. I guess you could use “Knowledge Block”, but it just doesn’t seem to communicate the issue at hand as well.

You might think from empirical observation that there are many people out there in the world in general and the business environment specifically who spend their entire lives in this state of mind. I have come to the conclusion that this is not the case. I think that most of these people have probably made a conscious decision on their part to not think anymore. If pressed these people can like riding a bicycle, remember how to think and deliver a solution, but for the most part will not do so. For whatever reason it seems that they have learned that it may be easier to let other people ride their bicycles while they metaphorically take a cab.

So where does the unconscious come into all this discussion of conscious decisions, problem solving and thinkers block you might ask? What I have found is if I have truly done my due diligence on an issue, done the research and applied myself to a solution and still have not arrived at a workable conclusion within a reasonable time frame, then the best thing for me to do is to take a break. It’s time to step away from the issue, work on or do something else for a little while, and let the subconscious take over. What I find is that while I am away or when I come back to the problem that there can be a new way of looking at things or an unexplored direction may be a new path to a solution.

Now you might think that this is such a neat trick that it might be best to just go ahead and bypass all the seemingly unproductive conscious effort and skip right to the unconscious part of the problem solving scenario. I have actually tried this as well. It doesn’t work, at least for me. It seems in this scenario my subconscious does not readily accept direct input. Unless the input is filtered through a direct and significant effort at consciously finding a solution, my subconscious does not seem interested in becoming engaged in the process. I am pretty sure that this is some sort of a built in safety mechanism since from what I can tell I probably do not want to be able to directly access some of the other things in my subconscious directly on a regular basis. If there is anything else in there that is worse than the spider thing I don’t think I want to know about it.

I have actually seen this subconscious problem solving process captured in a movie; “Men in Black III”. When presented with a conundrum that despite their best efforts they couldn’t solve, they didn’t keep pounding their heads against the thinkers block brick wall. They went and got pie. They took a break. And low and behold it worked. Now some script writer must have noticed the same principle that I am writing about or it probably wouldn’t have found its way into that movie.

Now in movies everything has a tendency to work out just fine. In reality, not so much so. However I have found that if I do encounter a situation where I am not able to come up with a solution via the normal analytical process, where I have worked hard at finding a solution but seem to have come up against a brick wall, that if I set it aside for just a little while and either take a short break or work on something else, when I come back to it I seem to have a refreshed view of the situation and can find a way around my thinkers block. I don’t necessarily have to go for pie like the Men in Black do. I usually go for a diet soda, or more recently a bottle of water as I try to take on more of the aspects of a healthier life style.

Sometimes when you have Thinkers Block, the best thing you can do is take a break. When you come back the issue, you may also find that your subconscious has also been busy, and will enable you to look at the problem with fresh eyes and to see an answer.

Now if I could just get it to work on that spider thing.

Losing Your Cool

I lost my cool the other day. I don’t do that very often. I try to make sure I don’t do that very often. I understand that may be hard to believe, but it is true. I didn’t realize just how far I had lost my cool until after I looked up from my phone call, the source of my cool losing, and saw three people staring concernedly at me from my office door. I guess I was louder on my call than I had realized. As I sat down, calmed down and reflected, I wondered is there really a place in business for losing your cool?

I try to be for the most part a positive reinforcement type leader. When people do well, whether they are on my team or not, I try to make sure that they get the recognition and reinforcement to continue on with those desired behaviors and activities. When people miss the mark I usually try to talk with them one on one to see what changes we can make to assure that future opportunities are not missed. It’s pretty rare that I get to the point where such a vociferous interchange occurs.

On the other side of things I have also noted that there always needs to be a balance in the way you conduct your business. There needs to be a reward or upside for appropriate or desirable behavior. There must also to be a downside or penalty for undesirable behavior. It seems that the question might now be; how undesirable must the behavior be to merit so significant a negative reaction? Are there really any types of behavior in a professional environment that should engender such a negative reaction?

Looking back, I can only identify maybe one or two managers in my career that I could really say used losing their cool as a management tool or technique. They were reasonably successful as far as their career progressions went. They both progressed to the senior executive levels, and in one case beyond, but were also widely regarded as rather unpleasant individuals to deal with. I suspect that all the yelling they did had something to do with that perception.

My point with these two examples is that they “used” losing their cool as their management technique. It definitely had a startling effect the first time you witnessed it, or were unfortunate enough to have to experience it firsthand. However after that, each successive time only seemed to reinforce the unpleasant management nature of these people. The actual subsequent yelling and screaming sessions while colorful seemed to lose their impact and value. They led their teams by using the fear of not performing and then having to endure the unpleasant management technique result. It was in essence the avoidance of the negative reinforcement that drove their teams.

As I recall, it was not some of the most fun I had in my career, although I did learn about many of the management and leadership topics that I have previously related. Maybe it was actually more fun than I give it credit for. Probably not.

I think I actually lost my cool because I was frustrated at the behaviors of the people I had been dealing with, both in my team and in another group. I had been dealing with these issues for quite a while. The person on the other end of the phone line receiving my tirade was actually someone I very much respect and consider a friend. That probably played into the situation as well. It is probably harder and less rewarding to yell at a stranger than it is to yell at someone you know. The stranger wouldn’t know if they were just the unfortunate one who happened to be the straw that broke your camel’s back, or if you were just a jerk that always behaved that way. A friend can probably tell the difference. At least I hope so.

In this situation our teams seemed to have found themselves in a finger pointing, circularly intractable situation where each was questioning both the role of and value add of the other group. An unhealthy situation at best. I contacted my friend to let him know of my annoyance at the last round of communications that had transpired. He responded and let me know that he was pleased that I was annoyed by the actions of his team. Perhaps he was being jocular in his response. Perhaps not. However in my somewhat animated and frustrated state over the ongoing issues, and the inability for the two business teams to work together in any way resembling a united effort, I lost my cool.

I have discussed the need for passion in a leader. This instance has reminded me that passion can be a two edged sword. The passion that drives us on to achieve can also result in the frustration over our inability to achieve and that can cause us to lose our cool. The result is that I took it out on a friend. Did he contribute to the situation and did he bear some of the blame, possibly. But that doesn’t mean he deserved to have to put up with me as I careened into my over energized state.

As is usual, I’ll provide a couple of quotes that I think might be pretty germane to this topic. The writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce said: 

    “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

I am really feeling that one.

Colin Powell, the retired four-star general and author said: 

    “Get mad, then get over it”

I am still working on that one.

I have sent a short note to apologize to my friend. He should not have had to put up with me in that way. I do however think that we may have broken the circular “do” loop that we were in, and can now start to make progress on the root issues causing both our and our teams frustrations. The next time I feel that frustrated, I think I will try to maintain my decorum and find a less volatile way to deal with the issue and express my displeasure. I really don’t think there is a place in the business for losing your cool.


It appears to me that preparation is becoming a lost art. It seems that we always have something better to do than to prepare for what we need to do. Whether it is studying for an upcoming exam, gathering our materials for a pending presentation, coordinating speakers and logistics for a customer visit or familiarizing ourselves with the business specifics for that crucial job interview, it is preparation that lays the groundwork for success. So if preparation is a key ingredient to the success of almost any endeavor, why aren’t more people prepared?

I have noted in the past that business seems to be more enamored with the people I have dubbed “fire fighters”, those people who are called on in times of crisis, than it is with those who quietly go about doing their jobs, being prepared, and avoiding the crises that others are always so willing to deal with. I guess this extends to our entertainment complexes as well. When was the last time that you saw a commercial let alone a television show about fire prevention or crime prevention? I can’t remember one. There are however several shows on about fire fighters and crime fighters.

I am not here to critique a bunch of television shows that I do not bother to watch anyway. I only bring it up as an illustration of what seems to be our preference for drama. Fighting fires is more dramatic than preventing them. This penchant seems to have filtered over into business. In business, as I would assume elsewhere, fighting fires is not more cost effective than preventing them. It might be more dramatic, but it usually takes more time, money and people to fight the fire than it would have to just get prepared and avoid the issue.

So, what has all this discussion about fire fighters have to do with preparation? It’s pretty simple. The best way to avoid fires and other issues is through preparation. If this is the best way to avoid extraneous activities, maintain focus and save money, why don’t more people do it?

The answer is: I don’t know.

Why don’t more sales people take the extra steps in preparing for their customer presentations? Providing the corporate attendees with information on the sales opportunity, products and applications being considered and the status of the sales process enable everyone to understand the customer situation. Written agendas are always appreciated by both those presenting as well as those being presented to. Vetting the topics with the customer prior to the presentation assures that the presentations are on target. Making sure of locations, logistics and equipment availability means that the entire visit will go smooth. This may sound like minutia and detail but these are just the basics.

Providing information and individual profiles of the visiting customers to the corporate attendees and presenters assures that everyone will know who the decision makers and influencers are at the meeting. Providing the titles and responsibilities of the corporate attendees to the customer allows them to understand the responsibilities and qualifications of those that are presenting and talking to them. It also provides each attendee with a written record of who was at the meeting and the role they played. It also provides a location where notes and comments associated with each attendee can be captured. It’s not a lot more work. It is just a little more preparation, but it will make a difference.

How many times have you interviewed a candidate for a position, and had the feeling that they were not entirely prepared? Candidates should not only be versed on the company they are interviewing with in general (as most of them usually are), they should also understand the various and specific markets that the company is in and the primary competitors that the company must deal with. They need to know how the company is doing with respect to these competitors. They should be familiar with the primary senior executives of the firm, as well as any specific programs that have been announced and the progress if any against these goals. Knowledge of the company’s financial performance for the past quarter and past year, as well as the analysts’ expectation of the company’s performance for the next quarter and the next year should also be expected.

All of this type of information is easily available through a number of public sources. However there are always a number of people that want to talk about opportunities and positions, that haven’t taken the time or put in the effort to prepare them with it. If the position is truly desired, this type of preparation is crucial and will differentiate the candidates.

I suppose my point is that preparation takes time and it takes effort. It takes a willingness to do something now that may not be required until some point in time in the future. Good preparation is taking the time and effort to be ready for something that may never be required, but you are ready in the event that it is.

There are innumerable sayings associated with preparation. Most are along the lines of good things happen when preparation and opportunity intersect. Those are nice but I tend toward a little bit more substantial in this case. I think George Washington Carver said it best:

There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.

I think if we spent a little more time preparing for whatever we deem important, as well as for possible alternatives, we would end up spending lot more time achieving and a lot less time fighting fires. That would probably best be described as progress.

The Crowd

At one point in time or another we have all wanted to be part of the “in crowd”. However we usually don’t want to be a “face in the crowd”. We know that “two is company, but three is a crowd”. We usually don’t like to be crowded in or crowded out. When we do something good it may be referred to as a “crowd pleaser”. The crowd is part of our lexicon, and it normally refers to the everyman or average person.

No one really wants to be average. We all want to some extent to be different. This is a way in which we are all alike to some extent. I try to encourage everyone to read. This act in itself will separate you from the average crowd. Not enough people read anymore. The more you read the more you will separate yourself from the crowd. I think this is a good thing. Our businesses and our society seem to be predicated on the addressing of the crowd, not the individual. There are several books on group and mob dynamics. I encourage everyone to find one and to read it.
There are some very interesting aspects on the way crowds are managed (ever here of the phrase “crowd control”) and the way crowds behave. The crowd, on average is easier to get money from and to manage because they like, and in some instances want to believe what they are told. If you want to be a leader you have to understand this and step away from the average crowd.

Leaders start being leaders by first not thinking as they are told. As trite as it sounds, they think for themselves. The information that we get about Pay Day Loans, Vitamins, Exercise Devices and all sorts of Weight Loss Diets is designed for the average group. This is information for people who want to believe that it is easy to get money, get healthy, and get in shape or to lose weight. It isn’t. Unfortunately for them it usually takes work, dedication and effort. People who do not continue to read and who do not continue to educate themselves will believe all sorts of outlandish claims and will subsequently be separated from their money in return for the easy promise of these items. They will be managed and as they grow they will become managers, not leaders.

This “think for themselves” standard applies to leaders in business as well. They learn to think for themselves. They understand where the information they are receiving comes from and why it is formatted and presented in the manner it is. They recognize who is providing them the information and what their goal is in providing it. It doesn’t matter if it is an individual contributor presenting their monthly report or the Chief Executive Officer presenting the corporate quarterly report, they both have a message that they want to convey and an objective they want to achieve aside from just presenting the information. That message doesn’t invalidate the information being received; it just adds another facet to it that must be considered.

Leaders form their own opinions. They don’t get them from the same place that the crowd does. They don’t get them from thirteen second sound bites on television. They don’t get them from one source. They don’t get them from news papers, magazines or the internet. They create their own. Leaders look at both sides and sometimes multiple sides of a problem. They strive to understand the supply side as well as the demand side of the issue. They understand what they want to do, but also try to understand what others want to do as well so that when both of their “wants”, sometimes competing and sometimes complimentary interact, they are ready.

Today the average person in business has been educated to one relatively higher level or another. This education is usually the product of our various educational institutions and systems. These institutions have a prescribed path and set of requirements that were probably developed many, many years ago. It is a tried and true formula that for the most part we are all the product of. It worked well when the process was put in place and it continues to work, right? I am sure that we are all comfortable knowing that the world, and more specifically business has not changed substantially since our educational curriculums were developed.

In case you were wondering, that was just a little sarcasm. Possibly just slightly more than a little.

If institutional education was the only key to success, why is it that new graduates, fresh out of college with their newly minted college degrees are not immediately made executives and put in positions of authority in business? The answer is pretty simple. It is because they have a lot to learn.

The average college degree indicates that its holder is capable of applying themselves toward a long term goal, working multiple years toward it, and actually achieving it. More importantly it indicates that the person has demonstrated the capability to learn. The average college graduate then enters the business world and seems to stop learning. They have been conditioned to expect that they already have learned all the information they will need, or that the information they need to learn to be clearly and cleanly presented to them. This has rarely been my experience in business. Leaders understand that graduating from college is the educational equivalent to an admission ticket to the major league business game, and that the real learning about business is just about to begin.

The average employee looks to receive assignments and fulfill them. They look to be told what to do, and what needs to be done and what is expected of them. Their belief is that by doing what is expected and what is asked of them they will advance. This is what was required of them in their educational institutional experience, and that seemed to work out pretty well there. That may be the eventual case for managers, but they will not ever lead in business by taking that approach. Leaders understand that they can do more. Anyone can do what is asked of them. Leaders do not wait to be asked to take on an assignment or solve a problem. 

Leaders understand that in business you learn by doing. They do more than they are asked to do. They do things that they have never done before. They risk being wrong in what they do. They build on what they have learned before and apply it to the new activities that they must now do. Leaders understand that they must now educate themselves if they are to continue learning, growing and succeeding, and that they do not educate themselves by following a manager.

Learning is a habit that is acquired and honed in school prior to entering business. It also seems to be a habit that many in business seem to forget once they are working. They have a tendency to rely on what they have learned instead of learning what may now be new. Two of the best ways that I have found to stay in the learning habit is to (One) try and add to the breadth of activities that you enjoy. Take up new sports. Learn to play a musical instrument. Go to new or different social events. The new or unfamiliar will force you out of your safe zone and isn’t that what learning is about. By keeping the learning habit alive, even in unrelated topics or fields, you will keep yourself open to learning in business.

The second method for continued learning is to read. Read a lot. Read for enjoyment. Read for professional interest. Just read.

Out of curiosity I did an internet search on the phrase “someone who likes to read”. I thought the results were pretty interesting. The definition of someone who likes to read is a “bibliophile”. Someone who loves books. That one is okay. It also returned “intellectual”. That’s also a good one, but it seems to me to be acquiring a bit of a negative connotation in today’s changing vernacular. “Bookworm” also came up. Definitely a negative connotation. Finally it returned “Dork” and “Nerd”.

I couldn’t make this up. Something that is acquiring that sort of negative connotation has to be good for you.