I’d like you to think about something for a minute.
Cast your mind back to the last time you produced work that you were incredibly proud of. That might have been a report, or a presentation, or a deliverable. It might be a meeting that you facilitated, or a workshop that you delivered. What I’m looking for was a situation where the result was so exceptional, so appropriate, so right for the circumstances. Where your reaction to it was delight and pride and exhilaration (even if no one else noticed).
Now, think about what was required to produce that result. Was it easy? Or did it take work? Was it a typical deliverable, one of a pattern? Or was it something special? Did you cut and paste from the last thing that you did? Or did you start from the beginning, and figure out a new way forward that solved the specific problem you were facing?
For most of you, the answer is likely that it was unique, it was specific, it solved a complex and difficult problem, and it took a lot of work and figuring out in order to produce the results.
And here’s the thing. We recognize and know that our best work takes effort. It takes blood, and sweat, and not a few tears, at times. We bang our head against the wall, we swear at the cat (who still manages to brush it off and look at us disdainfully) and we wrestle with the problem on a protracted basis. We lose sleep, we find ourselves staring into space as we try to figure our way into the problem, and then we get lost as we work through producing the results.
What all of this represents is something that psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi calls Flow. In essence, it is a peak experience where we are fully engaged and challenged by the task at hand. Those that experience flow get lost in what they are doing, absorbed in the work, stimulated by the challenge and fully focussed on what they are doing. The requisite elements of flow: a challenge that requires us to stretch, but at the same time we have the confidence we can be successful if we invest the effort and energy in the work.
What complicates all of this is the fact that we have a tension between flow and comfort. When we are in a flow state, we’re engaged. We’re firing on all cylinders. We’re enjoying what we are doing, and we can’t imagine ourselves wanting to do anything else. When we aren’t in a flow state, however, getting there looks like altogether too much work. We would rather do just about anything else imaginable, rather than get there. Our bed, our recliner, or a deck chair looks far more appealing and inviting than getting into the work.
The reason for this, as I’ve discussed before, is that we are cognitively lazy. That’s not a criticism, it’s a statement of fact. Our primitive brains like to conserve energy, and avoid anything that looks like work. Our evolved brains, however, actually enjoy a challenge. And they’ve been arguing with each other ever since.
What hangs in the balance is how we show up at work, and how we approach the work that we do. When we approach similar tasks to those we have done in the past, the temptation is to ignore the differences and go with what we’ve done in the past. The theory is that it worked last time, so it should probably work this time as well. The reality, though, is that we don’t typically invest the time, thought and energy that we know we should–or that we really need to–in order to ultimately produce the best results possible.
In other words–to put not too fine a point on it–we go through the motions. We do the minimum amount possible, hope the results suffice, and move on to the next thing on our list. In the meantime, our subconscious engages in a little nag-fest about whether what we’ve done is really the best, the most relevant, or the most appropriate work.
What complicates this are that there are levels. It’s a little bit like peeling back the onion. We stretch ourself on one level, and that leads to awareness–and opportunity–to stretch ourselves on a whole different one. The question, and the challenge, is whether we will do that or not.
How I approach delivering presentations is a good example. Time was that I used to do what everyone else did: produce boring PowerPoint slides with between five and seven bullets of five to seven words each (which is, if we are honest, one of the most inane rules, but also one that is broken most frequently). And while I didn’t necessarily read the text, I certainly followed it. In a certain context, that can be appropriate in that it gives the audience something with which to follow along. It is altogether and entirely boring and mind-numbing. The slides are easy to produce, easy to wind up reading, and easy to bore our audience with.
Producing slides that will engage our audience in an appropriate and meaningful manner is something different, however. We are visual beings. We like story, we like meaning and we like it when difficult and abstract ideas are made clear. Doing that takes a lot of effort. It’s much easier to just produce a whole bunch of text-heavy slides, show up on the day, and hope for the best. It’s also easy to default to a stance of “if the audience didn’t get what I was saying, then it wasn’t for lack of trying, and reflects on them more than me.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But it’s a handy excuse to have available when we don’t quite meet the mark (whether that was objectively defined or our own internal assessment). But here’s the thing: we KNOW when we aren’t hitting the mark. We know when we aren’t doing our best work. We know when a presentation isn’t landing well. We know when we could have improved how we presented or explained or illustrated the ideas we are talking about. We know when we could have invested more time and effort in making our message easier to understand, more effective and more relevant for our audience. The question is what we do with that knowledge.
A few years ago (2009, to be precise) I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a project management conference in New Zealand. Now that’s cool on a whole bunch of levels. First, I’m the keynote. Second, New Zealand is a spectacular and wondrous country on the other side of the world, and a place I’d never been to. Added bonus, I got to spend five days motorcycling there, in between planes and conferences and meetings.
I also had to put together a presentation worthy of the audience. One that would be compelling, relevant and resonant. It took a great deal of time and effort to produce. I was changing my speaking style, I was wrestling with how to present my ideas and I was wanting to take complex and abstract insights and make them hugely relevant. I did a lot of reading, a lot of reflecting, a lot of planning and a lot of reworking before I figured out how to approach the task.
The result was unlike anything that I had ever delivered. It was highly visual, relied on incredibly few slides and even fewer words, and placed most of the emphasis on what I was saying and how I conveyed my ideas. The total amount of time it took to produce the presentation was significantly longer than any I had produced before. The results, however, were pretty exceptional. Everything came together in an integrated, holistic way. Even though I was delivering the presentation for the very first time ever, I knew what I was doing and I was confident delivering it.
Having produced a really incredible presentation once, however, what happened the next time? Well, I had a template to work with. I had a structure and approach that I had used, and that I decided was reflective of my “style.” And so I kept using it. New presentations leveraged the same structure, the same layout and the same means of visual representation. If you look at one of the slide decks I’ve produced in the last 10 years or so, you would be able to pinpoint the style as being what I do. There’s a pattern and a visual language that exists across them, and that ties them all together.
While that’s not bad, necessarily (and branding enthusiasts would go far as to say that it’s awesome) it means that every presentation I do feels a little bit like a previous one. I’m using familiar patterns and structures, similar images and common templates to put them together. The first one was magic. The fortieth one feels more than a little bit derivative.
That leads me to my essential challenge, and the focus of this article. The first time I delivered a presentation using the template and format that I’ve adopted, I was stretching the boundaries of what I knew that I could do. I planned, I structured, I storyboarded and I revised. Through multiple iterations, I got to a solution that worked. The next time, I didn’t take as many iterations. I didn’t wrestle with structure and form. I squeezed my message into a predefined structure and style, and carried on from there. With every iteration, it got a little easier. And every iteration lost something in the retelling.
Last week, I did a presentation because I had to. I’ve committed to an on-going series with a partner, that ironically enough started with that first keynote in New Zealand. My partner wasn’t available, and I was in the chair. So a presentation was required. I picked a topic that I knew, but that I knew would resonate. I had material I could draw on. I had content that I could reshape. Because of work commitments, I didn’t have a lot of time and effort to devote to this presentation, so I consciously chose something that I knew I could make work within the bandwidth that I had available.
The result was serviceable. That’s my judgement, not anyone else’s. The feedback was in fact incredibly positive. And the presentation that I delivered was unquestionably mine. Look at the slides, and you will still see my signature style. At the same time, though, there were far more words on the slides than I’m used to–or in fact comfortable with. It was the presentation that I could do, in the time that I had available, but it was by no means the presentation that I would have wanted to deliver if I had a choice.
Did the audience know that? Probably not. Judging by the feedback, the questions and the comments, they were thrilled with the content. And I’m pleased to know that’s the case. But I wasn’t happy. I know I only went so far. I know I’m capable of doing a lot more, and a lot better. My standards for what is a good presentation are very different than–in my humble opinion–the presentation that I delivered.
I was reminded of this last night, watching an airing of Chef’s Table. The specific episode featured Grant Achatz, who is head chef of Alinea in Chicago (a restaurant that I desperately want to visit). Watching the episode was interesting, in that at times I wasn’t sure if I was witnessing ego or genius. And the answer is probably both. But unquestionably, I was watching a chef who was never satisfied with what had come before, and was always working towards and aspiring towards “what’s next?”
That was reinforced for me as he was discussing with his staff the need to overhaul and replace a number of dishes on the menu (again). His sous chef pointed out that every person in the restaurant that night had never been to Alinea before, and had no idea what to expect (apart from an exceptional and innovative meal). His answer was a simple but profound question: “But what about us?”
We’ve done it before. We know how to do it. Doing it again is going through the motions. Doing something new is stretching against what we have done before. It is challenging ourselves with new ideas of what we can do, of what anyone can do. It is testing the bounds of what is expected, what is allowed for and what is even possible. Alinea continues to push the boundaries of what fine dining looks like, with a constant emphasis on surprising, challenging and completely messing with their clients, in the very best way possible.
That’s the challenge that, on some level, we all face. And while we can’t and won’t necessarily challenge convention and past practice every day–or in every situation–we need to make a point of doing it often enough to test the bounds of what is possible. Our reason for doing that has little to do with what is expected of us (because showing up and doing what we’re talented at will probably impress most of the people most of the time). Instead, our reason for doing that is because the challenge is what invigorates and excites us. It stretches us to do things in different ways, and approach problems from different perspectives. It forces us to confront what we have done before, and consciously strive to push past that.
Because, “What about us?”