Why it is so positive to focus on the negative.

I am a naturally positive person. I like to start with the positive. I like to end on the positive. And I like to fill the middle with as much positive as I can. Yet, I don’t claim any responsiblity for my positivity. As Lady Gaga once said, Baby, I was born this way.

Team Meetings

On Tuesday mornings I meet with my entire team at The Weaponry, the advertising and idea agency I launched in 2016. I share updates on our clients, people, and growth opportunities. We discuss our long-term vision for the organization and our progress towards that goal. And yes, it is a positive experience.

The Good

This Tuesday I gave an update on our latest developments. The headline was:

In the past 3 months we have added 8 new clients in 5 different states.

I walked through the new additions, gave an overview on what we are doing for each of them, and mentioned the people who had either helped us secure the business, or who were already working on the accounts.

The Bad

After sharing the good news of the week I asked the team to keep looking for the peas under the mattress. I want to make this agency the perfect place to work, and the perfect partner for our clients. The only way you get to that point is by removing the elements that cause discomfort. I want to find the pain points and confusion. I want to know what is causing slowdowns and bottlenecks and head scratching.

Why So Negative?

It is easy to ignore your problems, especially when things are going well. But if we do, we won’t improve our machine. And if we don’t improve our processes, procedures, structure and people, we will never achieve the elusive goal of creating the perfect agency.

The Paradox. (Or is it a Pair of Docks?)

Admittedly, it is a little odd, especially for an optimistic, can-do, positive organization like The Weaponry to focus on the blemishes, weaknesses and flaws. But, Mama, that’s where the fun is.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of growth is eliminating weakness. By shoring up our weakest points the machine gets stronger and stronger. The entire team can feel it when a reoccurring problem goes a way. And when it does, we can then focus on the next issue up. There will always be a next issue up. But just as with technological advances and innovation, as challenges are solved, the new challenges that take their place are smaller and smaller issues.

Key Takeaway

If you really want to be great, don’t just acknowledge or admit your flaws. Seek them out. Root them out. Mark them in highlighter. Then develop a plan to eliminate them.  We use the EOS Rocks system, as outlined in the book Traction by Gino Wickman to take on our issues, gain traction as an organization, and continue on our path of organizational improvement. We are not perfect. But we want to be. And we are committed to getting as close to the dream as we can.

*I’d love to know your thoughts on either of the following questions:

  1. Do you feel that your organization makes a priority of discovering and eliminating your organizational and operational flaws?
  2. Do you try to proactively identify flaws in yourself, your outlook, your processes, your knowledge or your procedures in a quest for self-improvement? Or, do you beat yourself up over your shortcomings?
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How to lean in to team building at work and at home.

I come from a large family. Actually, I come from two large families. My Dad is one of twelve children. My Mom is one of nine. Both sides of my family have made family a priority. Not only have they committed to a lot of procreating, they have committed to a lot of recreating too. Both The Albrechts and The Spraus have made pilgrimages to the Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado, which has been rated as the #1 location in America for family reunions. Although how one mountain in Colorado is known as Snow Mountain confounds me. Don’t all of Colorado’s mountains have snow?

Bonding and Building

Family bonding and team building are the focus (or is that foci) of our reunions. We stay in large family cabins that house 40 to 80 people each. We play together, eat together, and enjoy general togetherness together.

On one of the days at each reunion we participate in organized team building exercises. The ranch offers a wide variety of activities that require you to learn how to work with a partner, or an entire team, in order complete a challenge.

One of two 40-person cabins we occupied at the Not-So-Snowy Mountain Ranch

The Cable Walk

One of my favorite challenges is the partner cable walk. In this challenge two partners stand on separate cables suspended 18 inches off the ground. Facing each other, the partners have to move as far along the cable as possible without falling off. The kicker is that the cables are arranged in a V-shape, so they spread farther and farther apart as you walk.

Taking Notes

When we took on this challenge several years ago with my Mom’s family, I sat back and observed the other pairs as they navigated the cables. I studied what worked and what didn’t. The best performance (farthest distance traveled) was from my brother-in-law Uriah, and my cousin Jacci’s husband, Mike. If you laid Uriah and Mike end-to-end (which to my knowledge we have never done) they would be close to 13 feet long. All things being equal, height was a major advantage.

But wait…

But all things were not equal. I quickly spotted what I thought people were doing wrong. All of the pairs who went before me held hands and started inching down the cables. While holding on to each other seemed like a good strategy, I could tell it was not the best strategy. And eventually it became a limiting strategy.

Our Attempt

Finally, using the insights from our observations, my wife Dawn and I took our turn. Unlike everyone else, we didn’t hold on to each other. Instead, we leaned against each other. As we started, we looked as if we were doing standing push ups against each other. Or maybe we looked like we got caught playing Patty Cake with crazy glue on our palms.

As we made our way along the v-shaped cables we became a human hinge, with our hands forming the connection point. As the cables formed a large and expanding V-shape, Dawn and I also formed a V-shape that allowed us to match the angle of the cables. This made all the difference. In fact, our lean-on-me technique enabled Dawn and I to travel twice as far as any other pair. Or pear. Or Pierre.

Dawn and I basking in our glory, while being shot by a very short photographer.

The Difference

It is easy to think we are teaming with others when we are in the same office, or on the same court or field. But proximity and contact are not enough. You have to reorient yourself to rely on your partners or teammates to do their jobs. You have to sacrifice your individual posture in order to create an even stronger team, machine, company or partnership.

Applying This At Work

As we grow the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I know we need to continue building and operating as an interdependent team. In order to thrive we need to create a scalable organization that gets larger and broader and deeper to accommodate the increase in demand. Which means that each of our members must do what is best for the entire team. And each of us must be able to trust our teammates to do their jobs, without handholding. It is the only way to achieve our ambitious goals.

Key Takeaway

In order for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, we can’t simply hold on to each other. We must lean on each other. We must trust that our teammates will lean back on us. By creating this dynamic, we create a structure of support that can produce much greater results than we could ever create on our own. This is true at work, in athletics and in families. It is certainly true within our marriages. 18 years ago today Dawn and I had our very first date. Ever since then, we have been leaning on each other, and accomplishing more together than we ever could have on our own. Just like we did on the partner cable walk at the family reunion in Colorado.  

 

How to warm up your brain before you work, and why.

Your brain is the most powerful muscle in your body. Ok, your brain isn’t really a muscle. But it is so powerful it KNOWS that it’s not a muscle! Your most powerful muscles are actually your glutes or your quadriceps, depending on who you ask. And depending on whether or not you are keeping up with Kim Kardashian. You can strengthen these leg muscles doing squats, leg presses, lunges, deadlifts and by delivering refrigerators.

leg-muscles
This is what your legs looks like when they are more naked than regular naked.

Warming up.

However, you should never perform these leg exercises without warming up first. For two reasons.

  1. You could shred your muscles like pulled pork.
  2. You will not perform at your best.

You should warm up your muscles to recruit as many fibers and synapses as possible for the mission. It also loosens the muscles, gets blood flowing through the area and prepares them for action.

Your Brain

Your brain works the same way. When your alarm clock detonates in the morning your brain is cold.  That’s why so many people try to stoke some brainial heat with coffee or tea. But it takes actual mental activity to get your brain primed and ready for work.

I have a trick I use to get my brain ready to perform in the morning. It’s not a drink, a dish or a pill. It doesn’t make you sweaty, stinky or even raise your heart rate.

A great way to warm up you brain.

I am a professional creative thinker. I own an advertising and idea agency, called The Weaponry, where we try to stretch our thinking as far as possible every day. To prepare for creative thinking, I use several different techniques to get my brain warmed up. One of my favorite techniques is to spend a few minutes working on brain games.

I like a challenge that forces me to think through questions from multiple angles, spot interesting connections, or evaluate at a level that goes beyond the obvious. I do this in a variety of ways. Here are 5 options that you can try tomorrow morning before work.

5 Warm up techniques that recruit your brain cells.

IMG_7284
This is a picture of two books on a table. Sorry this caption wasted your time.

Brain Challenges: My go-to morning stimuli are my Mensa Mind Challenge books. (I’m not a member of Mensa. I just play one at the bookstore.) They contain a range of
puzzles, math problems and brain teasers. Discovering the answers opens my mind and helps me view the problem, and thus the world, through a different lens.

Soduko  Puzzles:  These number sequencing puzzles are moronically simple, yet complex at the same time (like me). I really like the fact that I can keep switching my focus to get to the ultimate solve. I’ll hone in on a single number for a while. Then I might focus on a small box. Then a line. I like the fact that I never guess at Soduko. I focus on one small point until I know the answer with certainty before a I declare an answer. This works differently than the Mensa challenges because there is one simple, clear answer for each box, hiding in plain sight. I simply have to force it into focus.

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Great question.  Probably the same person who let the dogs out.

Mazes: These were my childhood favorites. I love the fact that you can think you know where you are going and suddenly you come to a dead-end and have to look in another direction. Many of our life challenges are like this. We think we are on the right path until we know we are not. Then we have no choice but to reevaluate our choices and perspectives. Someone should write a book about this phenomenon. Oh wait they did. (Who moved my cheese?)

 

 

Crosswords: These classics are great because they force you to dig into your broad knowledge base. But they also enable you to employ strategy and technique to help you fill in your knowledge gaps, using what you know to offer clues about the things you don’t know.  Here you can guess the answers without inducing catastrophic failure (see Soduko). I appreciate that they let you develop increasing levels of certainty on your hypothesis as you progress. They also reward you for knowing Tom Jones songs. So there’s that.

Memory Games: I have become increasingly interested in memory challenges. I come from long-lived people (I currently have 198 years worth of grandmothers). So maintaining my memory is going to be an important life skill. The power of the mind to develop visual codes to remember number sequences is fascinating to me. Over the coming years I expect memory games to become a larger part of my routine as I work to fight off dementia (I was born with as much dementia as I will ever need).

IMG_7268
There are many types of great brain games to warm up your thinking. Even ones with pixelated puppies.

The benefit of a warm brain.

Puzzles in the morning get your brain firing. You will feel like you have recruited more brain cells. You will feel alert and ready to think better, faster, stronger, and probably for longer. It’s like Viagra for the brain. Kinda.

Even though I am a naturally creative thinker, these puzzles, games and challenges help me stimulate my brain in a way that reduces creative blind spots. It is easy to fall into a mental rut and use the same type of creative processes, tools and paths over and over again. The morning puzzles can be like opening a mental tool box of problem solving devices. When you see the tools you could use, the tools themselves reveal the paths to various solutions.

Conclusion

I like the way the puzzles stretch your thinking. They help you see different angles and perspectives.  This pays off as you try to solve other business (or life) challenges the rest of the day. The puzzles and mind challenges ensure that your mind is alert, stretched, primed and fully powered to find new possibilities.

These puzzles are also fun. Starting your morning with a bit of fun and play makes your morning more enjoyable. That mood state alone contributes to more creative thinking.

If you are more math oriented consider this: if you could expand the power of your problem solving or creative thinking by just 10% by readying your mind, you will significantly expand the circle of solutions you can uncover.

Try warming up with some puzzles this week. Let me know how you feel afterwards. If you have a type of puzzle, quiz or test you use to keep yourself sharp please share it here. I could use all the help I can get. Especially in the morning, when I am delivering refrigerators.

My life-altering first lesson in professional problem solving.

When I was in college I spent my summers at home in Vermont working for a party rental company. I set up huge party tents with other college athletes, a few rugged high schoolers and a handful of experienced veterans who had real jobs, but would help set tents on the weekends for extra income (and presumably to show us what brands of jeans were cool a decade ago).

There was lot of beef on that crew. You had to be strong because the job entailed lugging tents that weighed more than you did and carrying all the tables, chairs and dance floors needed to get your party on.  You also had to be able to hammer 40-inch steel spikes into the granite of Vermont and New Hampshire.  This was not a job for the chess club.

Learning the ropes.

The first few tents I set up were in idyllic settings on lush, sprawling lawns. The tents were erected (snicker) in textbook fashion.  You laid the tent out flat. Pulled the ropes straight out from the tent. At each rope you drove a spike into the ground four feet from the tent. You tied the ropes to the spikes. Then you set up a side pole at each rope to support the perimeter of the tent. Finally, you set up the tall center poles in the (surprise…) center of the tent.  I was a pretty smart kid. I caught on quickly.

Then I went on what I thought would be a really easy assignment.  I was sent to set a small 20 foot by 20 foot square tent in a woman’s front yard with one of the veterans. I thought we would be done in twenty minutes.

Then came the problems.

When we got to the house I immediately began to worry.  There was no large field of green. There was what amounted to a small rug-sized lawn squeezed in front of a small house.  There was no 20′ X 20′ space to be found. There was no way to place the spikes back 4 feet from the tent so we could tie the tent down and anchor them properly. In one corner of the yard the porch of the house prevented us from driving any spike at all.

This was not good. A woman was expecting a tent for her party, but we weren’t going to be able to set it up in this space. The backyard had even less lawn. So that wasn’t an option either. I turned to Dave, the veteran, and said, ‘This is bad! We can’t set the tent. It doesn’t fit here.’ Dave was completely unfazed. He said, “Come on Greenhorn.  Let me show you how it’s done.’

The Eye-Opening Transformation

What happened next changed me in ways that will impact my clients for the rest of my career.  Dave found solutions for every single problem. Instead of setting the tent in the standard, follow-the-manual way, he set it in the way the situation allowed.  Dave mapped out a plan that I had completely missed.  He tied the tent ropes, that normally get tied to spikes in the ground, to anything that would hold them.  We tied ropes to the fence. We tied ropes to trees.  We tied ropes to the railing on the front porch of the house. The bushes and flower beds I thought prevented us from setting the tent in the front yard simply ended up under the tent, adding ambiance. And everything looked perfect.  The tent pulled straight and tight and clean, despite the fact that half of the anchor points had been improvised to accommodate for the environment.

It felt like my brain grew 500% that day. I quickly learned to love the challenges of compromised conditions. Over the next three years I became so adept at problem solving I believed there was no problem I couldn’t overcome.

 

Putting the lessons to work.

Today I use the mindset I developed setting tents in my advertising career. At my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, we deeply believe there is a solution to every problem. We don’t focus on what we would have done in the best case scenario.  We explore what can be done given the reality. What can be done with the hand we have been dealt.  That means no excuses. We always work to maximize the outcomes given the current situation. Because the key to life is a good plan B or C or D.

Don’t spend a moment thinking about how things should have been done if the situation were different. Focus on how to bake the best cake with the ingredients you have right now. It’s the only way.  Put all of your time, thought and energy into solving the problem in front of you. Recognize your assets. Make them work for you. Just like Dave showed me how to make that tent work in that small yard back when I was just a Greenhorn.

 

The one thing to focus on to be most successful.

Do you know why you are successful?  I know why I am.  Since you are reading this post, I expect you want to learn to be more successful too. So let’s get right to it, after this distraction. And another distraction. Wow, so many distractions before we get to the one thing!  These distractions are ruining this blog post! Or maybe this is an important demonstration of the point of this post.

The common theme of my greatest successes comes down to one word: Focus.

When I have created the best work, come up with the greatest answers or had the most impact on my clients, I was able to focus completely on the challenge in front of me. The same holds true for personal successes and achievements.

Far too often we take on too many responsibilities concurrently, juggling and reordering them like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.  Focus is about concentrating your energy. Taking on too much dilutes your power, potential and performance.

FOCUS = Focus On Completely Until Solved

Focus means prioritizing. It means scheduling so that everything can be the star for a time. Sometimes that means we focus on projects exclusively for a month. Sometimes it means focusing on a challenge for a couple of days. Or a couple of hours.

Scheduling to eliminate distractions is key.  As my friend and excellent business ideator  Duane Nelson often says, ‘Multitasking is a myth.’  But it is such a popular idea it could win the Myth America Pageant (if there were such a thing).  It’s really a matter of how hard we are able to focus. More focus means greater intensity of thought, deeper evaluation and more intelligent solutions.

When I have won major pieces of new business or created work that helped transform the way a brand behaves and spurred transformational growth, I have been able to clear my plate, my desk and my brainium to get the work done.

As we attack client challenges at my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I am always thinking about focus. I want to deploy the thinking power of each member of our team in a way that drives the greatest client results.  That is why we schedule our work  so that every project can play center stage for the appropriate amount of time.

It can be tempting to take on as much work as one human can shoulder to show how tough, capable or responsible you are.  While seemingly helpful to your team and your employer, this load-it-until-the-axles-bend approach doesn’t lead to the superstar performances you will be most proud of. It may, however, lead to broken axles.

This isn’t just a work thing.  Distractions are everywhere. Volunteering, attending events and getting roped into activities in your personal life can detract from your focus too.

Micro focus moves the needle micrometers.  Macro focus can move it miles. So if you are looking for greater performance, greater ideas and greater results find a way to get greater focus on the project in front of you.

*This blog post has not been brought to you by the Ford Focus, a model of Performance & Efficiency. With available SYNC® 3 · Dual-Zone Temp Control · Smart-Charging USB Ports.  It is designed to inspire | Ford.com “Car of the Year Award” – Autoguide.com

Do you have a Think Well?

The most valuable asset on the planet is a new idea. The surprising new solutions to old problems. The reinventions that change our lives and disrupt the way business is done. Ideas make money. And save money. They create competitive advantages, differentiation and wide motes out of model-thin air.

So why is it that a small handful of organizations seem to have a monopoly on great ideas? Nike, Google, Apple and Facebook all seem to pump out new ideas like Kardashians pump out selfies. While other organizations are simply one-hit-wonders, too busy dancing the Macarena with Rico Suave and Mickey to have another 99 Red ideas.

At The Perfect Agency Project we think the problem is simple. To generate great ideas you need two things.

  1. Time to think.
  2. A place to think.

I won’t get into the time issue here. Time is the most precious and most wasted commodity on Earth. Wait, I just got into the time issue.  Backing out now. Beep. Beep. Beep.

To make sure you are creating the best ideas possible you need to have a great place to think. I call this a Think Well, because:

  1. You think well in that space.
  2. When you find your place, ideas flow like water from a well.
  3. It sounds like Inkwell.
  4. I like a good triple entendre.

Does your office have a space people can escape to, that is quiet and relaxing?  Where people can think uninterrupted for a long stretch? Sure, senior executives usually have offices where they can close the door, put their feet up and imagine things like John Lennon did.  But what about the rest of the team?  Maybe you have a Think Well at home. If so, work there more often.

The downside to the open concept work environment, which eliminate offices, is that you decimate the natural thinking habitat. Which threatens the thinking population. Despite their popularity and low-cost per square foot, cubicle farms are not good at growing ideas.

There is a simple way to discover if your office has Think Wells: ask your employees. ( I thought of that in my Think Well). If they say they have such a place, encourage them to spend more time there.  If they don’t have one, send them on a mission to find one. If they can’t find a Think Well, you need to create one.

I’m a big fan of the quiet section of the library.  I’ve always gotten a lot of work done there. The no-talking mandate simply means I start talking to myself, in my head. Which is exactly what thinking is. That’s why every organization should have a quiet, comfortable space where you can go to let your mind jog. Innovative thinking requires pumping the thoughts and ideas from deep in your mind, into your conscious brain, where you can process them, and translate them into physical form.

As Napoleon Hill wrote in Think and Grow Rich:

“More gold had been mined from the mind of men than the earth itself”

So find your personal Think Well. Create a space for others. Then enjoy the ideas and the value they produce. Oh, if you know anyone from Baha Men, please forward them this post. I’m dying to finally know who let the dogs out, and if they ever came back.

 

To have more great ideas stop thinking about it.

I love ideas. New ideas tingle and jump in my head like pop rocks. If that is how crack makes you feel I would like crack. A lot. Ideas are the seeds that grow every kind of human-induced improvement on this planet. Yet many of us don’t spend much, if any time ideating.

I love the entire ideation process. I love loading my brain with information by reading and researching. Great ideas come from rearranging the ingredients in your head in new and novel ways. The more ingredients the more possibilities.

But after you top off your brain with input about the problem to be solved comes the most valuable part of the process: Stepping away from the problem completely. And doing nothing. That’s right. Just let the elements do what they want to do. Not what you want them to do. Yet, deep inside your mind, the ideas are growing. And fermenting. Brewing and bubbling. Forming and frothing. Without any additional effort from you.

This part of the process is like making cheese. Or wine. Or a baby. Well not making a baby. Just the baby-growing part. To the naked eye it looks like you are being lazy. The fun distractions at advertising agencies and other creative environments are great at getting team members away from the active thinking and into incubation. That way you don’t get in the way of the natural process. Think of it like baking a cake. Opening the oven door and jabbing toothpicks doesn’t help transform the batter into cake. Time and heat do the work.

The incubation period is the most valuable step in developing unique and differentiating ideas. Yet it is absolutely free. At The Perfect Agency Project we don’t charge for the time when we’re not actively thinking about challenges. During this phase of the process you can multitask. Or sleep. Or make cheese. Or compost. Or babies. The longer the incubation period the more you compound the interesting.

Unfortunately, for the professional creative, the incubation period is an endangered part of the process. Over the course of my career this valuable time has been disappearing like the Brazilian rainforest. And record stores. A lack of planning on the part of the requester hacks at this time. So does a lack of patience. But creatives thinkers have not done enough to promote the ROI clients earn on this free time. I hope sharing this post is a first step in re-establishing the importance of this step.

To make sure you get the most value out of the incubation period start early, build in time for nothing and let the team sleep on it. I often wake up and find myself perched on a great idea like a hen sitting on a warm egg. Resist the temptation to see work ASAP. You will often get the best results if you see the work ALAP.

So spend less money. Offer more time. Let your team know the outline of the challenge early. And watch the great ideas emerge like popcorn. And wine. And babies.