Experience can be an excellent tool. You can save time by cutting to the chase. You know what to do. Been there. Done that.
But what if you discover you’re chasing the wrong things (or not doing the right things)—thanks to the biases of your past experiences?
I recently realized some very old experiences were getting in my way. To help you avoid my problems, I’m sharing three examples here.
1. Asking good questions. In a recent LEAN Communications workshop, I was making the point that you can improve your listening by asking powerful open-ended questions. I shared my favorite questions and opened up the session to discussion. One individual immediately asked, “I always like to ask, ‘What do you think?’ It’s interesting that you don’t show that as a good question.”
She’s absolutely right! And the back story is that I stopped asking that question long ago when I got the answer, “Well, I don’t think anymore.” (For the full story, check out Think! An Effective Communication Technique.)
So now I’ve put that question back in my repertoire along with the other 18 questions the group and I developed. “What do you think?” is short, to the point and can elicit helpful data.
2. Respecting privacy. Even though 20 years have flown, the August 19, 1989 Gramercy Park steam pipe explosion, which dwarfed the 2007 incident, remains my defining New York City story. The asbestos dust coating my neighborhood has long settled and been cleaned up. And I’ve since sold my co-op apartment and moved west to California. Vivid memories remain though, as well as my predisposition to prefer openness over confidentiality.
I chose to cope with the uncertainty of the situation by deciding I wouldn’t care about my loss of privacy. For almost six months, while my neighbors and I lived in hotels and vacant apartments around New York City, a variety of workers cleaned our apartment building and the individual units inside and out, including rummaging through all of our possessions and helping themselves to trinkets they liked. My stress level fell with my attitude, but so did my acknowledgement that others may prefer to keep secrets.
To compensate, I try to be very discreet and confidential with information that others entrust with me. Just recently, though, I had to remind myself that many individuals and companies have very good reasons for keeping a number of issues confidential, and I need to respect and honor that. It helps to listen well, both to what’s said and unsaid, as well as ask good questions.
3. Setting and protecting boundaries. In reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the steam pipe explosion, I realized another unintended consequence, which is hurting me financially this year. One company’s big mistake 20 years ago is now benefitting several Fortune 500 companies in small ways.
Here’s how. Con Edison, the utility company, was responsible for the steam pipe blast that caused three deaths and a health care emergency for hundreds of others. Con Ed agreed to do the right thing, after much pressure from our co-op board of directors, city government and the city, state and federal Departments of Environmental Protection and with the New York media breathing down their neck. Con Ed cleaned up the neighborhood, our building and our apartments and paid for our expenses while our homes remained inhabitable.
As victims of a man-made disaster, we didn’t hurt financially. In fact, I was able to stash away savings during that time because Con Ed paid many of my expenses, including hotel room, food and clothes. Years later, I counted on that reserve when I started my firm, Connect Consulting Group.
Now fast forward to this year’s economic crunch. Many of my clients are intent on preserving cash so they’re lengthening the process it takes to qualify consultants, issue purchase orders and pay invoices. What had been a 45-day process a couple of years ago has now extended into 120-180 days for some clients—generally under the banner of complying with The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
Yet, my client contacts are eager for me to start work once they approve my letter of agreement. This means I’m often working months before I get any money for my labor. It’s rather ironic that as a small business I am serving as a bank for several Fortune 500 companies.
This time around, I don’t have the government, media and community watchdogs to safeguard me. I’ve got to stand up for myself and point out the hypocrisy of the situation. Do these same companies expect their customers to use their products for several months without purchasing them? I don’t think so.
I also don’t know the best course of action for solving this problem. I’ve learned a lesson but don’t know how to avoid repeating it.
Also, what’s in your past that sometimes hinders, not helps, your progress?