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The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us one in five American business ventures fail in the first year, 50% fail by year five, and 67% by year ten. The top causes of failure are overestimating revenue, lack of leadership capacity, ineffective business planning, and underestimating initial marketing needs: the four top reasons for failure are all Process Failure subcategories.

 

The data suggests a general deficiency in planning, seeing, and analyzing Process. These skill gaps exist, in large part, because traditional training methods tend not to be good at developing these skills.

 

Most leaders developed their professional skills through presentation-based workplace or classroom training, independent reading, and rote memorization. All rely on a presenter or writer to manufacture contrived scenarios for analysis. Every step of analyzing the scenario is preplanned and static.

 

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messydeskWithout even having to say it, many leaders express being overwhelmed - especially with the upheaval of a pandemic! So leaders often ask us, "How do we get out of being overwhelmed?"

How do we get out of being overwhelmed?

 

There are a variety of ways to respond to being overwhelmed. The solutions vary on the situation. To help us understand how this works, here’s a story of someone we have been working with for a while now.

 

We encountered a leader recently who was overwhelmed, personally, with how their work as a leader is going. Their organization is growing rapidly. They were understaffed for that growth. The leader had a strong task orientation. They questioned their own time management and priorities – asking the question as to whether they were spending time on the most important things. This reached such a stress point that they decided it was time to get help to deal with the situation – so as not to continue to pile on the pressure.

 

What are the consequences of being overwhelmed?

 

Overwhelmed is a distressing place to be: anxiety is up, focus is down, complexity amplifies. Decisions become more difficult. Overwhelmed puts us on the defensive so everything coming at us feels like a threat, a duty, or a burden. Unsurprisingly, this puts us into a higher level of stress – that carries over into our family life, our recreation, our sleep, our health, our non-work relationships, and even the clarity of mind we have for other life decisions.

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The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment

40,000 fans in attendance plus millions watching from their couch or local pub collectively groan. The commentators lament the score that might have been. Their team has dropped the ball.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, the coach is busy considering two questions: What was the failure? What feedback should they give to their player(s)?

 

The coach must choose a lens to evaluates the event. This choice fundamentally shapes his answer to these questions.

 

Lenses

 

The Outcome-Focused Lens

The coach looks at the outcome of the pass from Blue 10 to Blue 3. Blue 3 dropped the ball.

 

Given an Outcome Focused approach, what was the failure? Blue 3 dropped the ball. Now they must decide what feedback to give to the player.

 

The Outcome Focused analysis provides limited information and constrains the coach’s feedback. Blue 3 had two possible outcomes: drop or catch the ball. The coach – desiring the positive outcome in the future – shouts from the sideline, “Blue 3, Catch the ball!”

 

What are the consequences of this feedback? Has the coach empowered Blue 3 to catch the next pass? Probably not. The feedback implies that the athlete decides while the ball is in the air whether or not to catch it: on this occasion Blue 3 chose to drop but with this feedback, he will decide to catch the ball the next time. In reality, very few people choose to drop the ball. “Catch the ball!” provides no new information to help him figure out why he dropped the ball and how to improve in the future. Because he does not have adequate information to make corrections, Blue 3 is likely to repeat the negative outcome later in the game.

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This essay builds on a previous post about The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment.

 

More than a mile below the ocean’s surface, a squid searches for its next meal. No light penetrates to this depth but large, specially adapted eyes enable the squid to hunt in the deep. It scans the abyss, spots a glowing orb and decides to investigate.

 

The squid fixates on the light source as it approaches. Engrossed by the fluorescent appendage, it fails to spot the attached monstrosity. An anglerfish lunges from the dark and snaps the squid up in her powerful jaws.

 

Process Visibility

 

Like the fluorescent lure dangling in the dark, Outcomes are more visible to the naked eye than Process.

 

Outcomes occur at a fixed point in time. They are expressed via clearly defined, commonly used metrics. We know where to find them: a scoreboard, a quarterly earnings report, a market share analysis.

 

Process, by contrast, is fluid and ongoing. There is not a clearly defined moment to analyze for success and failure. Process requires constant review and adjustment.

 

The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment illustrates this contrast well. The Outcome Focused coach immediately fixates on the Outcome failure with little to no work. The Process Driven coach requires the aid of replay to comb through the moments preceding the drop. The Process Driven approach requires additional labor and resources (i.e. live game film, review software, a laptop, time, etc.).

 

Taking this lesson – the necessity of time and resource investment to observe, analyze, and improve Process – from the sports context to a workplace context is not straightforward. In the sports world, Process is documented on video. Most workplaces do not videotape their processes. Many processes are not physical – like the act of catching a ball – and are therefore impossible to catch on camera.

 

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Exasperated man staring into computer screen

 

No one goes into business to be frustrated.

 

No one takes a new job to be frustrated.

 

No one accepts a promotion to be frustrated.

 

And yet, we often are. And we often find ourselves frustrated for long periods of time.

 

Why is that?

 

What benefit do we receive from our frustrations?

 

I can hear people asking: “What do you mean, what benefit?”

 

We humans constantly weigh the costs and the benefits of anything we are doing. If something is frustrating us – especially as an ongoing frustration – there must be some benefit we gain from the frustration, or some benefit we think we are gaining. That is the only way we really will put up with the frustration.

 

The benefits we receive, or think we receive, from our frustrations lock us in to these long-term frustrations. And most of us want out. We want to move from frustrated to, well, just about anything else.

 

To understand why we put up with our frustrations, we must understand a bit about what benefits we are receiving from them. And to do so, we must talk a bit about motivation. From motivation, we can look at how to break the frustration-benefit loop.

 

Our Motivations

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