Thursday, October 20, 2005

Obstacles to Progress

My previous post about the Two Questions brought out a simple technique that can help you focus.  Understanding what you are really working for is absolutely critical if you want to make forward progress towards a goal.  But what about the other factors that can make it difficult for us to accomplish our goals?

Hidden Benefits
To help explain the concept of Hidden Benefits, let me tell a story.  The story is about a team that had been without a leader for quite a while. They were continually reacting to new issues, rushing around trying to solve one issue before the next would invariably pop up. I was brought in to get things on track.  As I looked around it was obvious that if we were going to make any progress at all we needed a more proactive approach. As I worked them through the business variation on the Two Questions (remember the Three Questions variation?) we were able to establish some specific goals for the team that they seemed genuinely excited about. Once we had focus on the goal we moved on to obstacles towards meeting these goals. They were able to list the obvious risks, but those were the easy ones.  If it was as simple as listing obstacles, assigning people to remove them, this group would have gotten back on track already.  So I pushed hard and used a different plan of attack.  It started with turing the Questions on their head and asking a different question:
"What are the benefits of NOT achieving these goals?"
As you can imagine, once you've spent time dreaming up goals and have identified the clear obstacles to success, it would appear that there is no good reason not to achieve their goal. They were quick to point that out. Unanimously they were adamant that there were no benefits to the situation staying as it was.  By continuing to push and providing some starter hints, they were able to start finding benefits.  For example
  • By only reacting, they never really had to prioritize work items.  Everything was always about handling the current crisis.
  • Since everything is happening to them, they couldn't be held accountable for any lack of progress.
  • The chaos of the current crises always gave them something to complain about.
  • They'd be in crisis mode so long, it had become familiar and normal.
Do you see the pattern? This exercise allowed them to uncover all of the hidden benefits they received simply by leaving the situation intact. Should the situation ever get better they would be forced to find other ways to obtain these same benefits.

You can find hidden benefits in almost any situation. Once you have uncovered these benefits, you can then begin to find other ways to reproduce them and still achieve your goals. On the other hand, by not becoming aware of the hidden benefits in a situation, you ignore obstacles to change.

To remove the obstacles that these hidden benefits can pose, you need to identify the needs or wants that the hidden benefit is addressing. There are many potential wants or needs, but they can usually be distilled down into a few general categories. You can use your own categories but I happen to like how Anthony Robbins talks about them. He outlines six basic human needs which go something like:
  • Love and a connection to other people
  • Contribution to something bigger (family, community etc)
  • Predictability, familiarity and security
  • Unpredictability and surprise
  • Growth and learning
  • A sense of importance
Once you have identified the needs or wants being catered to by the hidden benefits, you can then move on to figuring out how to meet your goals and those needs at the same time.

Familiarity as an Obstacle
From time to time you will come across situations where you are certain that there are no benefits to be found in the current situation. When you run into this, examine how long the current situation has existed. Most likely it has been around long enough to have grown familiar. As human beings we have a deeply ingrained desire for familiarity.  To counter this, you can look for alternative ways to provide the same level of consistency & familiarity while still inciting the changes necessary to meet your goals.  Some examples might include daily practices like meditation, exercise, reading, or journaling. These techniques can provide a much needed foundation of stability in a volatile situation.

In Practice
Throughout this series of posts I'll be discussing topics that apply clearly to yourself and your own life. In addition to the personal aspects, I will from time to time explore how these techniques can be applied towards situations outside your personal life.  In this post, I gave some insight into how you can identify Hidden Benefits in the situations you face. But how can you be aware of the hidden benefits that motivate others? By paying attention to inconsistencies in behavior and other non-verbal cues.  In some circles, Hidden Benefits may be referred to as "secondary gain". Secondary gains are often pursued outside of conscious, deliberate action. Those actions that aren't conscious and deliberate are governed by the subconscious mind. Now it just so happens that the subconscious mind is also responsible for body language, voice analogues, and other non-verbal communications. In situations where some form of secondary gain is motivating, you will often be able to detect this.  Examples that would indicate that there are secondary gains present include:
  • verbalizing an affirmation ("yes", "sure") while shaking their head.
  • verbalizing positive statements ("great.", "wonderful.") using a flat or neutral tone.
  • a negative facial expression (grimacing, frowning) while verbalizing a positive desire or outcome.
  • a negative mannerism (pushing motion, leaning back, fidgeting) while verbalizing a positive desire or outcome.
It is easy to incite this behavior simply by asking the person in the situation what the effect of getting what they want will be. Secondary gain incongruities will often show up in their response.

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