Innoculating Against Ignorance

I was sitting in the airport reading an article about the NBA playoffs pitting Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors, and over my shoulder, I heard someone say,

“The Cavs are doing what they need to do!”


I thought to myself, They sure are.  They have definitely exceeded expectations.  I kept eavesdropping as the man added,


“…and they’re growing”


Yep.  I mused. They really have come together as team since adding a whole crop of new players this year.


“… and they’re feeding…” he continued.


I checked out the stat line, thinking, Lebron does feed his teammates.  He shares the ball a lot, especially for someone who could shoot the ball every time down the floor.


“And we got ‘em vaccinated.”


Vaccinated?!?! I thought.  Who says that about a basketball team?!


That’s when I realized that the man wasn’t talking about the Cavs basketball team, but rather, the calves on his farm.  Like cows.  And of course he was talking agriculture!  I was sitting at gate C6 in the Des Moines International airport.


This happens more often than I’d like to admit.  I approach a situation from a single-minded perspective, and later find out that I was completely wrong.  It’s a problem that plagues organizations as well. We get stuck in our silos without acknowledging a broader perspective. If this sounds like your team, here are three simple tips to avoid misunderstandings and missed opportunities.


1.     Invite Those On The Fringe– When implementing something new, there is a tendency to only involve key stakeholders.  By soliciting input from those not intimately involved in your project, they have carte blanche to ask the “stupid question” that uncovers potential problems or opportunities your team would never consider.

2.     Assign a Devil’s Advocate – Groupthink is a real problem, especially in organizations with a strong corporate culture.  When discussing decisions, select a small team to uncover data and reasoning in opposition to the prevailing view, to challenge your thinking and encourage your team to identify way to mitigate risk.


Frame Problems from Both Sides – Research shows that problems framed only in terms of what is to be gained encourages organizations to take a conservative approach.Framing problems from the standpoint of fear and loss encourages more impulsive actions.Negate these inherent cognitive biases by framing problems and implementations in terms of what is to be gain, and what risks are involved.

At LifeWork Associates, we have nearly two decades of experience helping our clients quickly identify the root cause of problems and implement effective solutions.  If your organization could use some new ways to look at old problems, give us a call.  We'd love to help!

Like Riding A Bike

I learned to ride a bike when I was five.  It wasn’t authorized, but I “borrowed” my brother’s cherished banana seat model, maneuvered the bike to the curb, put my feet in the pedals, shoved off…

And crashed.

I must have laid that bike down into the grass on the median a hundred times until it finally clicked.  But once it did, I was as cool as my brother, minus the permed mullet hairdo.  Ever since that day, there hasn’t been a single bike I couldn’t ride.


Until now.

Engineers at Smarter Every Day have created a “backwards bike” – a regular bike that turns left when you pull the handlebars right, and right when you pull the handlebars left.  On the surface, it sounds like a relatively simple concept to master, but watching this video, I gained a new appreciation for the limitations of my brain. 

There are some important lessons here, especially for organizational leaders who are dealing with changes in their environment that may or may not require them to shift their way of doing business.

1.     Own Your Bias – It is impossible to have an “unbiased opinion” when making decisions.  No matter the situation, your experience subconsciously impacts your actions.  Rather than hide your bias, openly share how your experience is influencing your decision making, and invite others to do the same.

2.     Be Intentional – Leaders often achieve success by becoming experts in a particular way of thinking - to the point where their bias becomes unconscious.  Unfortunately, when business conditions change, a mindset shift may be necessary.  As painful as it sounds, this requires explicitly stating how your thinking must change, developing a new process, and applying conscious effort over time.

3.     Practice Makes Permanent – Much like the backwards bike, leaders can eventually master a new mindset to the point where it becomes second nature.  This requires regular practice without backsliding into the old way of thinking.  Once mastered, leaders can flex back and forth by applying focused effort.  And patience.

At LifeWork Associates, we have nearly two decades of experience helping our clients quickly identify the root cause of problems and implement effective solutions.  And if your organization is just learning to “ride a bike” or hasn’t caught on to the “new way” to ride, give us a call.  We'd love to help!

Smarter Every Day -

Backwards Bike Video Link -

What’s it take to be a Navy SEAL? The answer might surprise you.

What’s it take to be a Navy Seal?

Recently, while working with a government client, I struck up a conversation with an ex-Navy recruiter.   He shared a story about a recent change in the ideal profile for a Navy SEAL.  Apparently, the most fertile ground for finding elite candidates has traditionally been high school and collegiate athletics.  Recruiters have long spent considerable time and energy looking for the cream of the crop to fill the ranks.  As you might imagine, they targeted the top swimmers from the top college programs in the nation, since the job of a SEAL requires surviving aquatic conditions most of us would consider impossible.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of candidates wash out of the program, requiring considerable investment that is eventually lost.  So recently the Navy commissioned the Gallup organization to conduct an analysis of the SEALS to identify what separates the elite from the very good

While collegiate swimmers made the list, they were not at the top.  Football, baseball, and basketball players weren’t even on the radar.  Instead, the best candidates played water polo.  But close behind were triathletes, and others in sports that have nothing to do with water at all.  Lacrosse.  Rugby.  Boxing.  Wrestling. 

But the most surprising thing?  Athletes who played chess were three times as likely to succeed as those who did not.

On the surface, it seems odd.  But after a thoughtful analysis, it’s clear why.  The sports listed require incredible stamina, endurance, and the ability to take a beating.  Couple that with mental agility and you have an ideal candidate for SEAL excellence.

Once you read the study results, it makes perfect sense, but my guess is that recruiters never used to ask about chess.

The same thing happens in our organizations.  When making decisions, we utilize experience and “common sense” to develop criteria for the decision, but often times the criteria aren’t really those which will predict the most successful outcome.  To guard against this problem, consider the following actions:

1.     Ask, “Why are we making this decision?”:  Answering this question helps you identify which criteria will be most important.  It sounds simple, but if you are looking to select the best IT consulting firm because your current resources are not delivering fast enough and leading to project delays, then “speed” will be one of your key criteria. 

2.     Study Success:  Let’s face it, sometimes even expert opinions can be wrong.  When possible, examine  past decisions to identify which characteristics were the real differentiators for success.  This helps clarify the criteria that are truly relevant in the decision, and which ones seem like common sense, but really have no bearing on success. 

3.     Get Clear on Your Top Three:   Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink offers many examples of those who found success trusting their gut in decision making.  However, the examples also show that those who are successful are experts who can sift through mountains of data and find the few key markers of success.  Before drowning in an ocean of data, consult your experts to identify the top three criteria essential criteria, and focus your information gathering there.

At LifeWork Associates, we have nearly two decades of experience helping our clients quickly identify the root cause of problems and implement effective solutions.  And if you are looking for your own “Coffee Cup Moment”, give us a call.  We'd love to help!

*Post shared courtesy of our partners at Action Management Associates.  Check them out

Study Article (published in March 2010):

Coffee Cup Moment

A few years back, I was walking through the living room and saw my son staring at the TV.  Mouth open.  Glossy-eyed.  Like it was a bug zapper.

What amazed me was the subject matter that had caught his attention.  It wasn’t an action movie or a funny home video compilation showing people who get smacked in the face by rake handles or inadvertently lose their pants at a wedding reception.

It was an infomercial.

“Dad.  You need one of those.”

The product being advertised was a wallet made out of metal.  Virtually indestructible.

“See dad?  You can run over it with a giant truck or drop it in a toilet and nothing happens to it.  Good as new!”

I searched my memory and couldn’t recall a single time where I had accidentally dropped my wallet while performing stunts at a monster truck rally, or in the public restroom stall at intermission.  This was not a product I needed.  But they’ve still sold over 5 million of these things.

“Why didn’t I think of that?”

Often we think that creative geniuses just stumble upon popular product ideas, dreaming them up out of thin air.  But inspiration isn’t accidental.  Take the story of the Exo Shelter, a genius product that could revolutionize the way the world responds to natural disasters.  The designer of the product says the idea emerged from looking at a disposable coffee cup.

But we know better.  Notice in the video that breakthrough thinking isn’t accidental.  Creativity and innovation requires the following:

1.     A Well-Defined Problem:   Notice that McDaniel defined the problem as a need for quality, low cost shelters that could be erected quickly and efficiently.  Once the objective was clear, inspiration came via…

2.     An Open Mind:  McDaniel didn’t focus on the “shelter” part of his objective.  Instead, he opened his mind to look for any examples of things in his environment that were low cost, quick and efficient.  That’s when the coffee cup spoke to him.  But he still needed... 

3.     An Appetite for Risk and Rework:  It’s easy to dismiss new ideas.  Vetting the Exo Shelter required an investment of time and an expectation that perfection is never achieved on the first try.  If the idea has a strong probability of meeting all of your criteria, it’s worth investigating.

At LifeWork Associates, we have nearly two decades of experience helping our clients quickly identify the root cause of problems and implement effective solutions.  And if you are looking for your own “Coffee Cup Moment”, give us a call.  We'd love to help!

*Post shared courtesy of our partners at Action Management Associates.  Check them out

Where Are Your Toothpicks?

My dad was one of twelve kids.  You read that right.  Twelve.  That’s enough people to field a football team with one left over to act as a water boy.  This resulted in a very full house and a very empty bank account.  Dad always said, “You knew it was getting close to payday when you found a baked bean sandwich in your lunchbox.”

He attended Catholic high school on a partial scholarship, which, in those days, meant you had to work for your tuition.  He held the glamorous position of “Assistant to the School Janitor.”  Right up there with captain of the football team in terms of date-ability.

After classes every day, when his friends would go cruise Main Street, he would feverishly clean the school bathrooms under the tutelage of Joe Skadudo, a gruff old man.  And every time dad would cut a corner, Joe would balance his toothpick between his lips and scoff, “Not good enough.”  And back my dad would go, to do some extra moppingHe wondered, how does that grumpy old guy know I didn’t do a good job? He hardly even glanced at the bathroom?

One day while sweeping, my father picked up a toothpick from behind the post of a bathroom stall.  The next day, he noticed another toothpick stashed behind a toilet.  Each day he swept them up, and each day his cleaning passed inspection.  The light bulb went off.  My dad had cracked Skadudo’s code! 

It was the “Toothpick Tell.”  Joe stashed picks all over the place and used them as his metric for cleanliness.  The result?  My dad became a world-class toothpick hunter.

So, where are your toothpicks?  They are hidden all over your organization.  And you need to get rid of them.  The metrics that drive the wrong behavior.  But how?  Here are some tips.

1.     Reverse Engineer Your Measurement:   Has your strategy changed?  Then the odds are good that your current list of metrics do not support your mission. 

2.     Validate Assumptions:  Our expertise can sometimes lead us astray.  Gather empirical evidence that proves (or disproves) your assumptions that certain indicators truly lead to the results you seek. 

3.     Share Metrics Across Functions:  Silo-ed organizations are famous for having conflicting metrics.  Consider the customer service organization that is laser-focused on providing personal care while the IT department is driving toward rapid implementation of new automated self-service options.  A recipe for disaster. 

At LifeWork Associates, we have nearly two decades of experience helping our clients quickly identify the root cause of problems and implement effective solutions.  So what are you waiting for?  If you would like to explore strategies to get to the bottom of your own mysteries, give us a call.  We'd love to help!

*Post shared courtesy of our partners at Action Management Associates.  Check them out!

Curing What Ails You

A few years ago I remember sitting at home with a sick kid. Picture it. He’s six years old.  Today is PE day at school - Jake’s favorite - but he’s on the couch with a nasty stomach bug.  The poor guy is miserable.  It’s times like these where you wish you had a magic wand to make illness go away. 

Now, imagine a doctor came to you and wanted to inject your first-grader with HIV?

That’s what happened to the parents of little Emma Whitehead.  At age 5, Emma was diagnosed with leukemia.  For over a year doctors tried a variety of treatments, including two rounds of chemotherapy, but nothing worked.  They were running out of options.

That’s when the doctors approached Kari and Tom Whitehead proposing a radical treatment.   They wanted to inject Emma with HIV – a virus that normally invades the T-cells in our blood that are responsible for fighting what ails us, rendering us unable to fight infection. 

With Emma’s leukemia, the B-cells in her blood (and the T-cells’ crime fighting partner) turn malignant.  The doctors needed a way to attack the B-cells to get rid of the disease.  The T-cells could do the job, but they needed some help. 

So, as a last-ditch effort, they injected a special “disabled” form of HIV.  In its new form, the HIV virus still invades the T-cells, but it doesn’t destroy them.  Instead, it modifies them, allowing them to produce a special protein that enables them to attach to the B-cells and kill them.

The treatment was a risk.  After putting the modified T-cells back into Emma’s body, she became terribly ill and nearly died.  But today, she is happily bouncing around her house, leukemia-free.  It’s a miracle of innovation that turns conventional wisdom on its head.  There’s a lot to be learned from Emma’s story.  Here are three key aspects that you can apply the next time you are searching for innovative solutions.

1.     Focus on the Positive:  Rather than throwing out ideas that will not work, focus on what is good about them, and brainstorm ways to hang on to the positive aspects of the solution while minimizing or eliminating the drawbacks.  (HIV isn’t all bad)

2.     Defer Judgment:   We often judge ideas as they come up.  Worse yet, we discuss how we might implement them.  This prematurely shuts down the flow of new ideas.  Instead, make sure you set aside time to generate ideas without discussing the details or implementation potential.  (Human nature has a bias for action and/or disregard for new and unusual ideas.  Fight the urge.)

3.     Force Connections:   Research shows that groups fare better than individuals when it comes to innovation.  This is due to the interaction of our unique perspectives.  Build upon this by forcing connections between ideas.  How can we use our competition to our advantage?  Who else has solved a problem like this in a different industry?  What can we adapt from nature that might help us?

At LifeWork Associates, we have nearly two decades of experience helping our clients quickly identify the root cause of problems and implement effective solutions.  So what are you waiting for?  If you would like to explore strategies to get to the bottom of your own mysteries, give us a call.  We'd love to help!

*Post shared courtesy of our partners at Action Management Associates.  Check them out!

The Hidden Danger of Band-Aid Solutions

If you were to make a list of things that irritate you, I’d bet that “waiting in line at an airport TSA checkpoint” would be in the top ten. Sandwiched somewhere between “slow drivers in the passing lane” and “broken wheel on a shopping cart.”

Well, this past spring, TSA wait times went from “irritating” to “insane” overnight, with some passengers waiting in line for hours and missing their flights.  The TSA reported that the cause of screening delays was a greatly reduced staff.  Which sounded plausible.

But how many people had the TSA lost in the past year?  And how many more travelers were they screening? 

Since 2015, the TSA had only lost 51 of its 42,000+ screeners.  And the number of passengers traveling had only increased by 5%

So why the dramatic increase?

Back in 2013, the TSA went through its first round of major staffing cuts, losing over 1500 screeners.  To account for this and other factors, the agency began a process called managed inclusion,” allowing screeners to randomly send “regular” travelers through the TSA Pre-Check expedited screening lines to reduce wait times. This “Band-Aid” fix kept wait times at an acceptable level, with 44% of travelers receiving some form of expedited screening.  Unfortunately, this also led to a handful of cases where a high risk passenger (such as a convicted felon) was allowed through. 

Due to the increased security risk, the TSA disbanded the bulk of their managed inclusion program last September.  They knew this decision would likely increase wait times, but the affects weren’t immediately felt, because the decision was made after the busy summer travel season.  It wasn’t until the peak travel season began again that passengers noticed a huge difference. 

Since that time, the TSA has remedied the problem.  They increased staffing by 750 screeners, and the airlines have stepped in to add headcount of their own to handle the non-security related jobs such as bin replacement and line management to allow agents to focus on their main task – keeping us all safe.  In addition, the TSA continues to use trained dogs to pre-screen passengers for the expedited lane.  The result?  Wait times are back down, as is traveler irritation.

This complex scenario resembles those faced in countless organizations today.  There is a “surprise” change in performance, and there may be multiple root causes for the performance gap, and leaders must act quickly to implement improvements.  If you are faced with a similar situation, here are some techniques to help:

1.     Document Changes: Bottom line: changes cause deviations.  So, if you aren’t capturing all of the changes to your people, process, equipment, materials and environment, you are likely to miss the root cause of your problem, delaying the solution.

2.     Identify Restraining Forces: If your problem is the result of a variety of causes, list each one and use data to determine which are most negatively impacting your performance.  When time is of the essence, you can focus your solutions toward those that are most detrimental, rather than wasting energy on causes that don’t have a huge impact.

3.     Identify What Could Go Wrong:  When applying “Band Aid” fixes, think ahead to any potential negative affects of your actions.  Often times, you can com up with ideas to prevent the problems in the first place, or at least minimize the effects if the problems do happen to occur.

At LifeWork Associates, we have nearly two decades of experience helping our clients quickly identify the root cause of problems and implement effective solutions.  So what are you waiting for?  If you would like to explore strategies to get to the bottom of your own mysteries, give us a call.  We'd love to help!

*Post shared courtesy of our partners at Action Management Associates.  Check them out!