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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: February 2003

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Doggedness
  3. Musings
  4. Reading

  1. Techniques for balance

    I began my consulting career working for a training company specializing in problem solving. I thought it might be helpful to provide techniques this month for most easily, painlessly, and rapidly solving problems.

    • Focus on cause, not blame. The former provides an objective search, the latter provides emotionalism and recriminations. Don't seek vengeance.
    • Problems usually DO NOT go away by themselves. Face the issue, and deal with it. Procrastination exacerbates problems and builds stress.
    • Ask yourself immediately, "Is this important?" If the answer is "no," then live with it. Not all problems need to be fixed. (All of my cars have imperfections somewhere that don't merit my time to eliminate.)
    • Look for comparisons. If a door isn't closing, look at other doors and determine if you can spot any distinctions. These will often lead you to the cause of the problem.
    • Ask yourself "What's changed?" Virtually all new problems are caused by some change (else nothing would have gone wrong). Find out if the nature of a relationship has changed, something new has been installed, or someone made an alteration.
    • Use only empirical evidence. Focus on what you can see and prove, not what you suspect or are told. Validate assumptions. ("Yes, she has been late each morning," or "No, we aren't having poor responses to the offer.")
    • Be aware that to solve a problem you must remove its cause. Otherwise, you're adapting to it, which may be appropriate, as well. Putting additional air in a slow-leaking tire is adaptive, but plugging the leak (or replacing the tire) is corrective.
    • Interim actions can buy you needed time. Covering a hole in the roof with a tarp is an interim adaptive action which saves the furniture until a permanent patch can be installed. (Asking someone to "sleep on it" and talk in the morning when you are both calmer is an interim action to create a better environment for reconciliation.)
    • Make your process transparent. Let others know what you're doing and why. Unlike decision making, problem solving is basically an objective, logical pursuit and the more people sharing, the more positive suggestions and the less suspicion as to your motives. ("What do you mean by that?" is one of those emotionally pregnant accusations which often follow what was thought to be a rational suggestion but the intent of which was not shared.)
    • Validate to ensure success. Test your thesis on paper (it's easy to turn buttons on a machine and reverse them, but far more difficult to take back what you've said to someone in error or confusion). After you take your corrective or adaptive action, check to ensure that the problem is either removed or accommodated successfully.

  2. The Human Condition: Doggedness

    "Doggedness" to me is perseverance with an attitude. (The dictionary says "obstinately determined," among other things.) You not only "hang in there," but you refuse to settle for anything less than what you need. As a New York retailer once advertised, "Select, don't settle."

    For over a year my chimney was allowing smoke into the house, apparently through the overhead light recesses. I called chimney specialists, chimney sweeps, people with cameras which snake down the flue, people with echo sounding—heck, everyone who's been around chimneys short of Santa Claus and Mary Poppins.

    I was told that there were dangerous leaks between the chimney and the interior; that the chimney would have to be taken down (cost: $5,000 to disassemble half of it, then we'd "go from there"); that prior construction had weakened the house frame; that the lights would have to be taken out, rewired, and sealed. Estimates ran from $3,000 to over $15,000. As much as I wanted that roaring fire during the winter football games, I didn't feel that any of these analyses and resolutions were based on solid information or evidence. I refused to make a quick decision, despite my strong bias toward action and that distressingly cold fire box.

    One day, accidentally, I learned that there was a designation termed "master chimney sweep" and that there were a grand total of three in all of Rhode Island. I called them all, endured phone tag and repeated follow-ups, but managed to relate my problem to all of them. The unanimous opinion: I had a pressure problem.

    "Some of your refurbishing over the years changed the pressure in the rooms," revealed one. Then he added, for good measure, "It's impossible for smoke to come down from your ceiling through the lights. Smoke RISES."

    I knew that.

    One of the three had time to attend to my problem, and placed an exhaust fan at the top of the chimney. The problem was solved, my fire was back, and the total cost was $1,400.

    There are times we probably can't afford to be dogged: a medical emergency, car trouble on the road, a crisis with a customer. But more often than not, we can probably select and not settle. Our urge for instant gratification—and I am as guilty here as anyone—too often overwhelms our long-term best interests. There are people who purchase a car in less time than I would spend selecting a wine, and others who choose investments as if they'll all be taken by someone else before lunch. (Although I don't forgive the guy in front of me at the coffee shop last week who took longer to select a type of muffin than I take to choose a vacation site.)

    You have to pick your spots, I suppose, but in the absence of great (and real) urgency, and when you're making a decision which will impact your long-term well being, don't be hesitant to be dogged. It may sound like a bad science fiction program, but the answer is out there, somewhere.

    Don't create your own pressure problems, or someone may try to take apart your chimney.

  3. Musings

    To maintain our sanity, it's probably necessary that we listen to "non-experts" as much as we do "experts." The experts, with the best of intentions, usually ascribe the same level of zealotry to us as they, themselves, possess. And that's almost always a bad assumption.

    Think about your dental hygienist. Here's a person so unalterably enmeshed in teeth that, constructively, he or she will suggest enough of a tooth cleaning regimen to keep you occupied at least eight hours a day. It's truly frightening. I admire their zeal and professionalism, but I think the advice needs to be cranked down a notch so that it's pragmatically useful. (Have you ever witnessed someone flossing their teeth at a meeting or in a public setting? There are no zealots like the converted.)

    Similarly, when I ask someone the best way to polish my car, I don't really need to know about the sixteen levels of polish abrasion, nor optimal temperatures, nor pre-wash and post-wax. Please, just tell me what kind of polish on what type of cloth, and I'll take it from there. (When someone tried to instruct me about how to use a cotton swab to clean tiny engine components, I had to invent some excuse to walk away. I think I said that I was late for my bagpipe lessons.)

    One of the reasons for the need for social infrastructure, I submit, is that we can learn more practical things from fellow non-experts and non-specialists. I don't want to be the best barbecue cook in the hemisphere, I simply want to know how to light the grill without destroying the adjoining house. I needn't be a world-class gardener, I merely seek to keep the bushes from falling prey to some ornery- looking insects which are larger than squirrels.

    I once spent days every year trying to replace various decals on my cars' windshields. Auto clubs sent me instructions that almost demanded I visit Dusseldorf for training. Finally, a guy I know told me, "There's a product in a bottle called 'Goo Gone' (I kid you not). Just scrape off the old decal, rub on Goo Gone, and you're all set." Indeed I was. (Amazingly, it also cleans model railroad tracks better than anything else around.)

    Technology experts are among the most baffling. (Don't go getting upset, I've already offended hygienists, fine people all.) If a picture is worth a thousand words, they insist on a thousand pictures. I love it when they say things like "zap the pram, then reset the bus." Why not just talk to me in Swahili? Again, I was far better served when a colleague told me, "Press the button with the Apple logo at the same time that you press the two buttons next to it and the power button, and the thing will reset." Just like at the bowling alley, but how come only one button is required there and that's ancient technology?

    We don't need championship advice on most occasions, but just enough to get by, through the day, and on with our lives. I've stopped reading instruction manuals, because they tell me way too much than I need to know. I just read the "Quick Start" part, then throw it away. When our daughter gave us TIVO as a gift (because she was fed up with constantly recording TV programs for my wife and me when we traveled) I had a service guy come in to install it.

    "I just want it to record," I told him. "You don't want to know about creating your own programming, sending recordings to your VCR, and automated scheduling?" he asked, eagerly, salivating, anticipatory.

    "No," I said as I left the room, "not unless you want to know about the nine steps to successful flossing."

  4. Reading

    I've had a host or requests to revive the occasional reading lists I once provided. Here's what I've been through recently, am going through, or will be going through soon:

    • "Stan and Ollie," by Simon Louvish (the biographies of Laurel and Hardy).
    • "Seek My Face," by John Updike.
    • "When the Women Come Out to Dance," by Elmore Leonard.
    • "My Losing Season," by Pat Conroy.
    • "Sandy Koufax, A Lefty's Legacy," by Jane Leavy.
    • "The Shipping News," by Anne Proulx
    • "Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage," by Noah Andre Trudeau.
    • "Fat Ollie's Book," by Ed McBain.