flow, learning zone, life lessons, project management

Lessons from Lino

Recently, I laid the lino in our bathroom. It was about time: the roll of lino had been lurking accusingly in the hallway for almost two years, since the end of my last maternity leave.

Laying lino is not a core skill of mine. It is also, I can assure you, not as easy as the professionals make it look on YouTube. The job is not as well done as I would have liked, but it’s done, and along the way I was reminded of a few life lessons I thought I’d share with you.

The learning zone can be very narrow, so learning to stay in it is important.
Part of my desire to lay the lino was for an interesting, but not too demanding challenge: an opportunity to learn something new, but within my capabilities as a sleep-deprived mother-of-two. This is the sweet spot of the ‘learning zone’. As the challenge mounted, and the time pressure increased (due to my teenage step-children coming back from holiday in France, wanting access to the bathroom), I found myself dipping into the panic zone more than once. It reminded me what a knife-edge the learning zone can be: sometimes there’s a very fine line between comfort zone (in this case, paying someone else to do the job) and panic zone (‘catastrophizing’ and poor decision-making here we come). It’s important to cultivate the self-awareness to realise when it’s all getting a bit much, and have tools in your armoury to move back into the learning zone: in this case, everything from taking a deep breath and getting a cup of tea, to accepting mistakes already made and pressing on regardless as calmly as possible, rather than giving in to the temptation to tear it all up and start again.

Flow is incredibly valuable and effective – and lack of it is inefficient at best. One of the most frustrating things about nap-time DIY is the fragmented time you have available. No sooner have you become absorbed in the task of wrestling a larger-than-life lino elephant into your bathroom, a little noise from next door alerts you to the impending wakefulness of a baby needing your attention. I think it’s fair to say that the task took at least three times as long in actual time – never mind calendar time – because of the need to constantly find a convenient (or not so convenient) stopping point, and then get back up to speed at the next opportunity. I’m sure the quality of the job was also impacted: if I’d done the major cutting in one block, there would have been fewer mistakes as I would have more easily remembered what I had done on the other side of the room, and also built up my skills more quickly. If you can focus on a task for longer blocks of time, you are much more likely to get a good result, more quickly!

Even a gigantic task is possible, you just need to break it into smaller chunks. Although nap-times interrupt flow, this approach to a task also forces breaking down the job into smaller blocks of work. Had I fully contemplated when I started the magnitude of the task: since laying the lino requires levelling the floor, and also means putting up the bath side, which means cutting the skirting board, and then cutting and laying the hallway carpet and joining that and the lino at the doorway, and that involves moving a bookcase and finding a new piece of carpet, etc…I might not have started. However because I just focused on the next task at hand – for example levelling the floor, and then planned each sub-task for a specific time-gap: tapping in nails, wood filler, tape and underlay, etc. – the whole project was never overwhelming.

Good enough IS good enough. Like many of you, I have a tendency to want to do things as well as I possibly can. But sometimes, it’s more important to get the job done and move on than it is to improve the quality. I keep reminding myself that one of the reasons for completing this particular project was to improve the home experience for the teenagers. For them, a further delay would be an inconvenience, and they were – and still are – perfectly happy with the quality of the job done, so why worry about the mistakes only I can see? Knowing what is good enough for any given task goes along way towards increasing your effectiveness.

Life is a learning experience. Many carers I know who are returning to work – most of them women – struggle to make their experience seem relevant, or are not taken seriously by recruiters. Often these people would add huge value to a team. It’s up to us as employers to take into account more than ‘work’ experience when hiring, and up to us as job-seekers to learn from life experience, and articulate that experience relevantly. Life throws us challenges all the time, whether we are caring for a family, working 60 hour weeks or travelling the world on a yacht – so treat them as much as possible as learning experiences, and take the time to reflect upon and learn the lessons offered.  For example, here is my previous post on lessons from maternity leave.

Do you agree with the lessons I’ve taken from this? Are there others you think are important? Or maybe you have your own DIY stories to tell – use the comments to share your thoughts.

Action Learning, entrepreneurship

Are you setting up your own business or considering a portfolio career? Looking for a peer group in Oxford?  

Are you setting up your own business or considering a portfolio career to better have the impact you want to have on the world?  Or do you know someone who is?

As part of my training as an Action Learning facilitator, I’m running a free fortnightly set in Kennington village near Oxford for new and aspiring entrepreneurs. See below for details – I can take up to two more people for the set starting at the end of October, but might run another in the New Year – possibly in a different location – if there is enough interest.

Action Learning is a peer-group based methodology which involves a small group or ‘set’ of people (usually 5-8 people) coming together on a regular basis to discuss challenges that they face. Challenges can be personal or professional, and there are a wide variety of types of set, some with very diverse participants and others involving colleagues in the same organisation (sets are used widely in the NHS, for example). Participants benefit both from exploring their own challenges with the group and also from understanding others’ problems and solutions. Sets work best when participants are good listeners, ask lots of open questions and don’t try and ‘coach’ people to answers, but rather allow them to reach their own conclusions. There is a strong structure to the sessions and they are actively facilitated to enable people to give each other the space to explore.

I’m running an introductory set of 5-6 sessions, each two hours long, run fortnightly in school hours at my home in Kennington, Oxford. There is no cost to you except your time and no obligation to continue beyond the 5 or 6 sessions initially committed.  I hope that participants will find it fun and informative – a chance to explore a new technique, meet some friendly people and get the opportunity for some insights into a challenge of their own.

If you’re interested, drop me a message on Linkedin or email me at megan@moryscarter.com

book review, business management, communication, leadership

Book Review: Radical Candor by Kim Scott

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott lays out her thesis for how to be a good boss.  The premise is deceptively simple: be both challenging and caring with your people.   The book starts with laying out a philosophy which may be familiar to many: that relationships with the people on your team are the most important management tools, and that working collaboratively and motivating people is the best way to drive results.  It goes on to describe a step by step process for creating the right culture and managing people on a day-to-day basis.

“Radical candor” is coined as a phrase to describe being direct and honest with your feedback in order to drive results, whilst also caring deeply for individuals.  This two-by-two matrix, with caring personally on one axis and challenging directly on the other, is the framework on which the entire thesis hangs. When I started to think about Ruinous Empathy and Obnoxious Aggression, I could immediately recall examples from my own experience where due to a lack of bravery in challenging people, or frustration over a particular action, I had myself slipped into those quadrants.  Balancing the task and the relationship, or criticism with caring, is undoubtedly a challenge we all face in management and in other areas of life. This framework for me brought to life an awareness of the boundaries between the quadrants, and how to spot and correct yourself when you drift into unhelpful communication.

Kim Scott also emphasises the value of culture, a principle which I wholeheartedly agree with.  The well-used and multi-attributed phrase “culture eats strategy for lunch” has always resonated with me, and when you consider the impact of many, many small interactions between your team members every day, you realise quickly that helping others to adopt whatever framework you choose is just as important as abiding by it yourself.  One aspect of culture which she brings to life for me is the treatment of ‘superstars’ who want to grow, move on and get better, versus ‘rock stars’, who are extremely competent at their jobs and want to stay there.  Finding ways to identify, reward and incentivise both groups is something many organisations don’t seem to have cracked.

I’m finding it challenging to pick out just a few key lessons to take away, as there was so much meat in this book: it’s a real manual for caring managers who want to get stuff done.  Much of the advice might seem obvious: listening techniques, how to solicit and give feedback, what it means to care personally about someone.  Some of my favourite tricks were included: being clear about ‘debate’ versus ‘decision-making’, having honest career conversations with your direct reports, hiring for culture more than experience.  Perhaps the most useful element, however, is the way this book integrates good management/feedback/communication advice into a framework which acknowledges and embraces common management techniques – including meetings such as 1:1s, staff meetings, etc., and talks about how to be radically candid, and therefore effective, with each of these elements.  You may not agree with absolutely everything, but it is certainly laid out with clarity and practicality, in a way that allows for easy ‘cherry-picking’ of the most useful elements.

Overall, Scott lays out an attractively simple and elegant framework by which to measure your management behaviour, coupled with detailed advice on how to get to where you want to be within the framework.  That advice covers both personal skills such as listening and giving feedback, as well as some thoughts on how to use meetings and management tools.  It focuses on the relationships between you and your direct reports, making a powerful statement about their importance to your effectiveness.  If there is a criticism, it would be that the book draws in principles (such as good listening) from several areas covered by other books, such that you may feel some segments are already familiar. However unlike many management / self-improvement books, its value cannot be summarised in a few bullet points, but comes with the detailed anecdotes, examples and arguments laid out in the text.  Definitely worth a read for anyone who aspires to be a good boss.

Photo credit: Wakefield Morys-Carter (who was fortunate enough to see Kim at a conference)