Thursday, August 25, 2011

3 Tips On How to Make Decisions With Limited Information

Image from: http://blog.ercast.org/2010/09/decision-making-capacity/


"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." 
- Theodore Roosevelt 


Life is all about making decisions. We make hundreds or even thousands of them every day of our lives. Some decisions have greater impact than others. Some decisions have greater impact than we realize at the time we’re deciding. Sometimes some of us avoid making decisions and this can get us into trouble.

When I deal with a mentee who has difficulty making decisions or is having to make a particularly tough choice I start to probe. I want us both to understand the underlying cause for this “decision-making hesitation”. A common complaint around why it’s so challenging is that the mentee doesn’t have enough information to feel comfortable making a choice. Sadly, it’s not often we have all the data points we’d like to have before deciding something. Analysis paralysis is certainly not the way to go.

So, what to do?

I’ve found the following 3 tips extremely helpful when faced with this situation. I advise the mentee to:
  1. Go with your gut. - Often times our gut is leaning in one direction and it’s our brain that’s providing an overriding, paralyzing narrative. There is a terrific book by Malcom Gladwell called Blink which is about trusting your initial instinct. It discusses the "mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information". If your gut/subconscious/whatever you want to call it is trying to tell you something let the message play out in your mind. Don’t try and suppress it. Your gut is simply another data point for you to consider. The best thing to do is be honest with yourself.
  2. Ask around. Ask for help. Build an Advisory Board. - Maybe you don’t have to make this decision all on your own. Like any corporation go ahead and establish an Advisory Board for yourself and set yourself up as your own CEO. Ultimately the CEO makes the decision but often has the benefit of an Advisory Board that brings additional information and perspective to a situation.
  3. Be comfortable with mistakes – those are opportunities to learn! - The very best tip in my opinion is to have a positive attitude towards making mistakes. I try to impart this idea to all of my mentees: Embrace mistakes because mistakes have a golden gift of knowledge wrapped up in them. If one sees mistakes as an opportunity to better oneself it makes it easier to choose in the first place. There will be benefits no matter the outcome of your choice. This topic alone will be the subject of a future posting.
When I'm faced with a difficult choice I open my mind to my gut, ask around for opinions and look forward to the results of my choice because I know in almost all cases something good will ultimately come of it.

"Nothing is more difficult and therefore more precious than to be able to decide."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Art of Debate

Image from valleyparent.com


The announcement came over the antiquated high school loudspeaker early my sophomore year: "Anyone interested in starting a debate club please see Ms. Jones, club advisor." (name changed). Something in me for some reason told me to pursue. I guess even at that time I was naturally drawn to take on "organizational challenges" so I followed the instructions. I met with the requisite teachers and became the club's President. All this despite not knowing thing one about debating.

Once all new members assembled our club's advisor, who was a speech teacher by day, began the most rudimentary course in the Art of Debate allowing our novice minds time to process and practice key debating lessons. She taught us the differences between a values vs. a policy debate [if interested, more info here]. She taught us that we must define our terms early in the discussion or be lost. She showed us the supreme importance of clash - which is ensuring we reject or at least address each point made by our opponents. She perfected our arguments and extracted eloquence from our nascent communication abilities. Through these lessons and these contests with other students from other schools we gained confidence. We gained the ability to synthesize our thoughts in the heat of a discussion and succinctly target our opponent's proposals. We also gained an incredible ability to deeply understand and pursue an argument from many opposing viewpoints.

I can't recommend enough the debating activity to anyone in high school or college. It will certainly arm you with skills you will use for the rest of your life.

One big advantage of having the ability to know your opponent's position is that it allows you to very successfully tear those arguments apart and convincingly build up your own case. When I transitioned into the working world equipped with this ability to deftly argue my point of view and easily disarm others I hadn't a clue how damaging it could be if used indiscriminately. These skills, used incorrectly, will actually hurt your ability to communicate effectively with your team members or your boss. An argumentative employee, even if they are right, will not be looked favorably upon by a manager nor find a warm reception from colleagues.

A few years into my young career I was achieving success but not as much as I had expected in the team/partnership area. I wondered why. In speaking to an informal mentor of mine about this he asked me the following question:


"Would you rather be right or be happy?"

At that time I naively thought those two were the same! I mistook being able to convince others that my viewpoint was the right one as being equivalent to success. In an unexpected way being armed with debating skills closed my mind to other forms of communication. Debate, by its very nature, is a confrontation. Sometimes confrontation is very necessary but in the real world it should be used sparingly and appropriately. 

Nowadays when mentees of mine approach me about being 'right' in a certain situation and are frustrated at their efforts at convincing others I recount for them my experiences and ask them the same question. I try to ensure they've only used the Art of Debate as a final resort rather than an opening move.  

To be clear I would not trade my debating experience for anything in the world. But now I'm grateful for the wisdom of knowing how and when to apply those capabilities and for being able to use some of those skills in less confrontational ways.


The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

What is a Mentee's Role? 5 Key Attributes

Image result for mentee


This past Friday I was invited to participate on a panel hosted by a technology company in San Francisco on the topic of mentoring. It was a fantastic session with many great questions! Over the course of the next few months I'll be taking some of those questions and turning them into broader blog posts. To start off this 'series' I'd like to discuss the role of the mentee in a mentoring relationship.

I've already posted tips on how to ask someone to be your mentor and tips for starting off with a new mentee but never really covered this particular angle. If you are a mentor feel free to use this as a guide to help start off your conversations with possible mentees. If you are a mentee please use this as a checklist to ensure you are more than just willing but fully enthusiastic about each of these attributes!

For a successful mentoring relationship to occur the mentee must be:

  1. Proactive - The mentee must be proactive in 2 important ways. First, it is usually a mentee that seeks out a mentor and rarely the other way around. It is the mentee that stands the most to gain, at least initially, from these conversations and therefore needs to be the one to do the reaching out. Generally folks with enough experience to be mentors are extremely busy and won't seek out mentees to make themselves even more busy. Secondly, it's key for the mentee to approach each mentoring conversation prepared with topics to discuss. You may or may not end up covering every topic. Over time you'll probably get to a point where formal preparation becomes unnecessary. But at the beginning a mentee should not expect a mentor to have a list of things to talk about other than ask some general questions (i.e. "are you happy?")
  2. Trustworthy - The mentoring relationship by necessity needs to be a confidential one. Only by being trustworthy can a mentor feel free to share their own personal experiences and advice with the mentee. Without trust and confidentiality from each person the conversations will at best fail and at worst damage someone's career or feelings.
  3. Patient - Patience is required by the mentee in a myriad of ways. Sometimes a mentee needs to be patient just to get on a mentor's calendar. Other times advice given on particular topics takes time to internalize and implement. Mentoring is not a tactical, one shot type of activity. It's a relationship and a series of conversations. And as in any relationship patience is a key ingredient to success.
  4. Good listener - Of course it's critical for a mentor to be a good listener so it's easy to forget that a mentee needs to be just as good a listener. There's no point discussing topics with a mentor if the mentee doesn't have a determination and mindset to listen to the suggestions offered.
  5. Committed to the time required - Finally, both the mentor and the mentee need to make a commitment to each other regarding the time required to build a solid mentoring relationship. It doesn't have to be a large commitment (I usually do 1 hour every 2 weeks with either person able to cancel should an urgent matter come up) but it still needs to be a commitment nonetheless. Without some regularity in the mentoring relationship the conversations will lose their arc and their focus. New mentoring conversations almost always build on past ones so keeping those threads alive and close will benefit greatly.
As in any maturing relationship once your mentoring one solidifies the logistics become less formal (i.e. how often you meet and how much of an agenda the mentee needs to bring) but other aspects such as patience and trustworthiness go on forever.

One final recommendation: as a mentee write down a short list of results you want out of mentoring. What does a successful mentoring relationship look like to you? Whether you decide to share this list with your mentor or not, it's still important to crystallize and communicate your expectations at the beginning of the relationship so you can ensure you are both on the same page.

Good luck!