Do You Know Why You’re Successful? – Part 1

What are the factors that make you successful?  Do you know?  We usually don’t ask what makes us successful, only what makes us fail.  When something fails, we instinctively hold a mental inquisition and attempt to identify and execute the offender.

However, we are not as quick to dig around when everything goes right.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing” we often say.  But what are we doing?  If tomorrow everything tanked, what would you start rebuilding?  This is why it’s important to identify the factors that make us successful.

I recently started developing a grid to help me put some skin on this.  After all, it’s difficult to evaluate a ministry, business, project, or a household from the ground up without some kind of template.  And for those new to this kind of evaluation, knowing where to begin can be very confusing.  So while this grid isn’t exhaustive by any means, hopefully it’s a great springboard that launches you in the right direction.  So without further ado, I give you my grid:

Systems, Cultures, and Teams

Now you may be thinking “That’s not a grid, that’s just 3 lousy words”!  True, but don’t let the simplicity derail you here.  One reason this works is because it’s simple.  Depending on your situation, you may use this quite frequently, so it makes sense to keep it streamlined.  Let me start breaking this down a bit, and I believe you’ll begin to see the value.

Systems

For our purpose, a system is set of interacting actions or pieces that, together, produce an identifiable result.  Think of it like this, in my house we have a post-dinner system.  Once the meal is done, my son Xander clears the table, my daughter McKenzie washes the dishes, and my son Mason drys and puts them away.  It’s incredibly basic, but each element of the system contributes to producing an end result – clean dishes back in the cupboard.  Notice I did not qualify the overall consistency or effectiveness of our system.  That comes later.  For now we just identify it as a system.

In that example the system was intentionally designed.  But not all systems are intentional, some just happen by default.  Default systems are typically ineffective at producing good results, although probably just a consistent.  Because nobody crafted them, they’re usually a product of the “easy road” and produce results nobody really wants.

I recently corrected a negative default system in my personal life.  For several months I’d developed a habit of staying up late to watch TV.  That single decision (or lack of one) had significant impact on several areas I needed to improve.  Because I stayed up late I got up late, didn’t have time to exercise, didn’t have time to read my bible, and didn’t have time to talk and pray with Karrie before starting our day.  Additionally, TV in the evening was taking the place of reading good books and spending more time with my kids.

So here’s my intentionally crafted system.  Since the first of the year, my family has been on a “no tube during the week” system.  It was initially unpopular, but we’ve all commented that we like it better this way.  Intentionally making a decision to eliminate TV during the week was the single key to regaining ALL the things listed above that I value.

One tweak in the system had a significant ripple effect, not only on me, but also my family.

Andy Stanley often says, “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting”.  Don’t like the end product?  Interrogate the system responsible for producing the outcome.  This applies to social interactions, assembly lines, food production, church services, athletics, and myriad other arenas!  Trying to change the outcome without addressing the system is like taking Tylenol for a brain hemorrhage.  It may temporarily mask the discomfort, but there’s a massive problem in the background that’s going to get worse.

If you’ve been successful at anything, chances are  good that there was a system propelling you in that direction.  Even a default system, while much less likely, can result in success.  We usually call this the “secret sauce”.  The problem comes when you or I don’t know the ingredients of our own sauce.  If something ever corrupts it, we’ll be hard pressed to correct it if we don’t understand it.

From time to time pick up the end product, look at it, sniff it, poke it; if it isn’t what you want, go back and tweak the system.

Pick something you’re successful at.  What system propelled you toward that success?

 

Ride the Storm or Steady the Plane

Does anybody actually enjoy turbulence?  I’m willing to bet we’d all say no.  Years ago I took a flight from Chicago to San Antonio with terrible turbulence the entire trip.  It was the only time I contemplated using the barf-bag for its intended purpose.

We’ve probably all heard the captain come across a loudspeaker and say something like “Howdy folks, we’re lookin’ at some nice clean cruising up around 30’000 feet, but we’ve gotta wrangle a tough ride in order to get there.  So sit tight and we’ll do our best to get everyone comfy again as soon as possible.”  (Ok, maybe you haven’t heard that exactly, but you might if you flew out of the South.)  As long as we believe he’s looking for better conditions, we’ll cut him some slack and appreciate the safe landing.

Bottom line is, nobody likes turbulence, but we’re willing to endure it if we know it’s necessary and temporary.  In a manner of speaking, all leaders fly “planes”.

You may not have wings, but you have people, and they’re trusting you for the ride.

More than once I’ve had to key the handset and tell my team “we’re in for some turbulence”.  Maybe it’s a change in direction, an increase in expectations, a compressed schedule, a new system, whatever – it’s all turbulence.  And no matter how necessary and healthy the turbulence is, sometimes you just have to steady the plane.  Even the best get weary of nonstop jostling around, and a lull in the chaos is often all that’s needed to rejuvenate and refocus our energy.

While I’ve never struggled to make decisions that result in a bumpy ride, I DO have to remind myself to steady the plane.  It feels unproductive and boring, but it’s as necessary as the turbulence if we want to lead well and take care those we’re flying.

Are you naturally a turbulence creator or a smooth sailor?  Neither is wrong, but neither is perfect either…

Leaders Give Up

At the end of this month I will have been in full time ministry for 8 years.  Eight years longer than I thought possible in my 20’s.  In that time I’ve realized that leadership in ministry isn’t all that different from leadership elsewhere.  I’ve lead Marines as a squad leader, teams as a project manager, and staff & volunteers as a pastor.  Each one required its own approach and skill set, but some things have been exactly the same.

Leadership always requires something from the leader before it ever gives anything back.

Here are 5 things leaders give up:

1.  AGENDA:  Squad leaders train war fighters to accomplish the mission.  Project managers align teams to maintain profitability.  Pastors encourage and enable people to carry a message.  There’s no room for a personal program that detracts from the main objective.  In each case, the leader gives up his own agenda for the sake of the bigger picture.

2.  LEAVING EARLY:  Andy Stanley says “Speed of the leader, speed of the team”.  It’s hard to ask big things from people if the leader isn’t personally willing to sacrifice.  This could extend to showing up late as well.  Either way, longs hours are part of the game.  Everybody wants to go home, but leaders give up the right to leave early.

3.  VENTING:  As a lance corporal I would say “bitching is how I cope”.  That worked as a lance corporal.  However, as an NCO I learned something different: “only bitch up hill”.  Leaders have the power to influence the emotional and psychological tone of the team.  No matter how bad the situation, leaders give up the right to vent frustration on those they lead.

4.  SIDES:  During group conflict it’s human nature to choose sides.  It’s a survival mechanism; none of us wants to be alone.  Choosing sides as a leader, though, jeopardizes the big picture which is getting EVERYBODY going in the same direction.  While it’s absolutely necessary to address the conflict, leaders give up the luxury of choosing a side within their team.

5.  TROPHIES:  Great leaders absorb criticism and deflect praise.  It’s easy to get that backwards. Most team failures usually point back to leadership, and good leaders know this.  Conversely, none of us achieve success entirely on our own, we always have someone to thank.  Lone-wolf leadership was debunked years ago.  Great leaders hold accolades with an open hand and give up the trophy.

Can you add to my list?  What have you given up as a leader?  (Hint:  Parents, you can make a colossal list!)

Gut-check

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Somebody once said “The greatest enemy of future success is past success”. Boy, isn’t that true. We can round the final corner, dig deep into that last stretch, and before we know it we’re still taking victory laps long after the crowd’s gone home. I suppose it’s risk management. We work so hard for victory that the thought of having to turn around and start again paralyzes us. Even though success is often a long cycle between concept, action, evaluation, adjustment, and finally victory – we tend to feel the most good about ourselves at the end. So we milk it.

You don’t have to look far for examples. Hollywood C-listers still riding that blockbuster from a decade ago. People in their 40’s still living their high school glory days (Uncle Rico, anyone). As a parent, I’ve tried a few things on my teenage kids that worked great when they were 6…not so much now. They’re all a product of relying too heavily on the power of past success.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the Bible, it offers some solid advice on the subject. Philippians 3:14 says “I press on toward the goal…” Not a shove or a slam – press. A steady advancement in the direction of the ultimate goal. God knows some days it’s slow. Other days it practically moves itself. Speed isn’t the point. Consistency is. So unless you’ve reached your ultimate end goal, and I know I haven’t, this isn’t the time to let up.

With whatever resources you’ve been given…press on

No matter how afraid you are of failing…press on

Whether you’re riding success or failure…press on

And whether you feel like it or not…press on, press on, press on

Underating Simplicity

It seems the nature of things to drift toward complexity.  The MacBook I’m typing on is anecdotal proof.  Turns out I’m quite fond of complexity.

There’s just something about a bazillion individual pieces all churning harmoniously along together that gives me a giant nerd-smile.

And that’s my problem…at least more often than I’d like it to be.  Because I find beauty in complexity, I forget about simplicity.  Too many times I’ve been challenged with “It doesn’t have to be so complex”, only to respond with “Yea…but it’s cooler this way”.  Somebody point me to the nearest Complicators Anonymous meeting…

A few weeks ago we found ourselves creatively exhausted after the prep and execution of Easter.  We put a ton of time and energy into “The Grand Undoing”, and just didn’t have the juice to dive into another ball-busting design process.  On top of that, the next series promo had to air the week of Easter, so we were actually doing these two projects consecutively.  Our creative team of 5 usually works 4-6 weeks out, meaning we’ve got 2-4 weeks to concept, design, and produce content.  However, given the Easter rush, we had just 1 week to go from concept to completion.  Somebody came up with the idea of going low budget (original, I know).  The interesting thing is that all our projects are low (or no) budget.  We just try not to let them look that way.  So on this round we admittedly kept the look consistent with the budget…low.  Here’s our completed product for the April 2012 series called “Surviving Family”:

This ended up one of our more popular videos especially among, you guessed it, families.  A special thanks to my teammates Abel, Casey, Will, and Jana for their fantastic creative contributions.  I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to create with!

I’m now on this hunt to find ways to make what appears complex, simple; and what is simple appear complex.  Any other complicators want to start a support group with me?

Dream Crusher

I was reminded yesterday morning of just how much we as a culture abhor disappointment.  We’ve developed a hyper-sensitivity toward this brutal enemy that brazenly denies us our hopes, dreams, and fantasies.  And when do our collective defenses rise quickest?  When disappointment threatens our children.  Take for instance the recent story of a young boy at a Texas Rangers game.  In case you haven’t heard about it, here’s the short version:

Three-year old attends Rangers game with parents, ball flies into the stands, three-year old wants the ball, adult couple near him actually catch it, three-year old breaks into a sob, adult couple is villainized for not allowing the three-year old to make the catch.

From what I read, the parents of the three-year boy took it all in stride.  The father actually defended the couple when interviewed by the press.  However, the TV production staff was not so reasonable.  Between the commentator, producer, and camera operators the televised case was made that these ball snatching grown-ups were despicable people…because they dared disappoint a child.  Furthermore, it appears there was an expectation for the couple to surrender their trophy!

I don’t want to overreact, but to me this is a serious problem.  We’ve begun a systematized attack on one of the greatest educators in the natural world.  How many lessons can be learned simply by the harsh reality of an unrealized desire?  Isn’t that what drives us to work harder?  When disappointment exists without dilution it becomes the catalyst for greatness!

Take it away, especially in children, and they never learn to push through, dig in, take the bull by the horns and triumph.

I believe a parents removal of childhood disappointment often has nothing to do with the child and everything to do with the parent.  We struggle emotionally with our kids letdown – the pouty lips, quivering chin, huge tears.  It tugs at our heart strings and we respond by eliminating the sad situation.  This not only removes the child’s sadness (and by extension ours), but it also makes us the hero – “Mom & Dad, the great deliverer of dreams”.  It’s easy to see why the cultural pattern has developed.

We can all probably agree that culture is unlikely to change.  Which makes it all the more difficult for parents to be the champions of reality.  We’ll need tougher skin, concrete values, and plenty of love and encouragement to dole out when disappointment invades our families.  No doubt it’s tough, but the long term pay off is huge, and someday, I believe the next generation will look back and be grateful.

The art of painting targets

For the past several months my small group has been studying the book “Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours” by Dr. Kevin Leman (Amazon).  On the cover (pun intended), it appears to be a study in developing a more stress-free form of parenting.  And while that may be true, I think it would be better described as a family leadership guide.  Here’s what I mean.  So much of leadership, in or outside the family, comes down to the matter of clarity – clarity of expectations, clarity of systems, clarity of vision.  According to the book, successful parenting is not so much about cajoling/forcing/manipulating/bribing our kids in a certain direction, rather it’s about painting the target and encouraging them (through positive and negative consequences) to shoot for it.

I believe the concept holds just as much weight for leadership outside the family.  This is something I appreciate about my boss.  He’s a painter.  Not in the spirit of Michelangelo, but a painter nonetheless – a target painter.  As an artist and leader of artists, it’s incredibly liberating to fully understand the expectation…and the accompanying boundaries.  If you’re like me, you’ve probably received some “general direction” leadership at some point in your life.  It can seem liberating, but ultimately here’s the problem: while a target has not been communicated, you will be gauged against that unspoken target.  Great leaders are experts at painting targets, but even the worst leaders have expectations.  Bad leaders just don’t communicate and clarify the expectation.  So while looking like freedom and room to run, it ends up being the rope that hangs you.

With this in mind, I’m on a quest to be the “king of clarity”.  My family deserves it, my fellow artists deserve it, and my teams deserve it.  First on the list, clarity in my own head.  Sounds like another blog post…