For me, 2011 was a great year in personal development but the uncertainty and turmoil surrounding being a government employee reaffirmed the need for constantly developing my skills. I see 2012 as being even more turbulent and I am convinced that the best strategy is to be the “go to” employee who consistently delivers results.
This is why I highly recommend Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice. He lays out a complete plan for consistently creating and implementing innovative ideas no matter what type of work you do. As he argues, it is not enough to just do your job. To keep your job and move up, you need to do more by generating brilliant ideas on demand.
This sounds almost impossible but Henry focuses on five areas to help you develop work habits that aid you in generating good ideas on a daily basis. You learn how to best focus your mind and present it with the right stimuli while creating a creative circle of friends to mutually nurture each other’s innovative skills. I don’t agree with all of his suggestions but I found his chapter on focusing to be the most useful.
As Henry argues, creative people have trouble deeply focusing because they bounce from one project to another project in a fruitless effort to be productive. There are two big obstacles to focusing effectively: unhealthy assumptions and the "ping.”
We are constantly creating assumptions because our brains naturally try to predict what will occur and then refining our assumptions based on what actually occurred. This is very useful for getting us through the day but our assumptions can also lead us into a mental rut and blind us to what the actual problem may be. Henry’s advice is to take a few moments to list our assumptions surrounding a project and questioning the validity of these assumptions.
Another threat to our focus is the “ping.” These are the little distractions throughout the day that interrupt our focus with their signals to “pay immediate attention to me.” Is your email set to alert you when you receive a new message? Are you constantly checking your Blackberry? How often do colleagues stop in your doorway? All these pings take away valuable focus time and not only do you lose the time answering the ping but you lose the additional time needed to refocus on your primary task. The solution is to check your email at predetermined intervals, close your office door, and put your Blackberry in a desk drawer for a while.
Now that you have dealt with the obstacles to focusing, what are some techniques to focus more effectively? Henry first suggests that you review your current projects and develop a list of four-to-six challenges that prevent you from completing the project. Under each challenge, brainstorm a few questions related to the challenge. The reason why you want to use questions is because a problem well-stated is halfway solved. The challenges/questions also help you zero in on what is really important to the project.
After you have completed the list of projects with their associated challenges/questions, Henry advises that you list the “Big Three” questions that are currently most pressing. The top three questions that need an immediate solution, keep you up at night, which just seem the most important to you at that time. The purpose of the Big Three is to continually remind you of your most pressing issues so that you lose sight of what is important while dealing with day-to-day tasks.
Another advantage to creating a list of challenges/questions is that you can group similar challenges and questions together. Henry describes this as “clustering” and is essential to focusing because it limits how often your focus shifts and helps you reuse an innovative solution. You can also have your team members share their lists of challenges/questions to create a team “cluster” list so that team members can share solutions and collaborate on creating innovations.
Government employees will be facing a great number of challenges in 2012. The best way to prepare is to not only become better at our jobs but also becoming at developing ourselves. Learning how to effectively focus is one good skill in helping you become a better employee along with the other suggestions from Todd Henry’s book. As I said before, I didn’t adopt all of Henry’s suggestions but I found a number of valuable techniques that I have incorporated into my work habits.
Henry, T. (2011). The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice. Portfolio Hardcover.