Posts Tagged ‘opportunities’

Flexible Focus #44: Lessons in Life Balance

by William Reed on March 10, 2011

The common word for it is Work-Life Balance, the challenge and stress of giving proper attention and time to both work and family. Part of the challenge is that every individual’s situation is unique. No one pattern fits all.

Sometimes the stress is generated not so much by the situation, as by the person’s thoughts and attitudes in responding to it. Particularly stressful is the effort to do give equal attention or equal time to everything. This cannot be done, though you can work yourself into a frenzy trying.

The juggling pattern

In a previous article in this series we looked at the question, Are Goals Traps or Opportunities? That article looked at four approaches to goals: distracted pursuit, single-minded focus, stepladder thinking, and flexible focus. When you attempt to juggle the elements with anything other than flexible focus, you tend to drop all of the balls.

Juggling is an excellent metaphor for Life Balance, as taught by Michael J. Gelb in his book, More Balls than Hands: Juggling Your Way to Success by Learning to Love Your Mistakes. A good juggler can easily juggle 3 balls with two hands, and a professional can juggle 4 or even 5 balls. However, in life we must juggle far more factors than this, in eight fields of life: health, business, finances, home, society, personal, study, and leisure. This is our challenge.

And yet think about how many things are juggled already in perfect balance without any effort or interference on our part! Your breathing, blood circulation, digestion, sleeping cycles, a vast number of habits and actions we perform without conscious thought or effort. And in the greater scheme of things, the coming and going of the seasons and cycles of nature, the movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars, all of these things are juggled by forces beyond our imagination or control. There is peace of mind in appreciating the process.

A better understanding of balance

A simplistic view of balance is that of equal weights on a scale, like the scales of Lady Justice, dating from ancient Greek and Roman times. While this may be the goal of common law, it is precisely the effort to make everything equal which confounds us in the process of Life Balance. The process is far too dynamic to be able to measure in this way.

Nor is it a matter of trying to please everybody, or do everything. In Japanese, the word happō bijin (八方美人) refers to a person who smiles equally insincerely to everybody. Politicians sometimes fall into this trap, promising all things to all people, and delivering on none.

What metaphors then can help us gain a better understanding of balance, one which is both beautiful and practical? The core metaphor for the Mandala Chart is the zoom lens of flexible focus, through which you can see the big picture, the small detail, and the connections all at once. Through the articles in this series, hopefully by now you have had plenty of practice in flexible focus.

Another metaphor which illustrates the process in an appealing manner is that in the art of Alexander Calder (1989~1976), inventor of the mobile and a pioneer in the art of moving sculpture. It is best if you can see a Calder mobile up close, but there are plenty of Calder art images online to give you the idea. In addition to being asymmetrical and 3-dimensional, they are in constant motion.

Each element able to move, to stir, to oscillate, to come and go in its relationships with the other elements in its universe. It must not be just a fleeting moment but a physical bond between the varying events in life.

~Alexander Calder

It would be hard to find a better poetic description of flexible focus.

Soft focus and a calm center

At the end of the day, what really makes for Life Balance is not how you juggle the parts, but whether or not you maintain a calm center. It is in the central frame of the Mandala Chart, the seat of meditation, where you free yourself from the distraction of forces pulling from the outside, yet maintain your awareness and control. You can see it in the eyes of a Buddha statue, soft focus which is all seeing.

In addition to meditation, you can cultivate flexible focus by calm and deep breathing, such as done in the slow movements of Tai Chi Chuan. A compelling image used in this art is that the number of breaths you draw in your lifetime is fixed. Hence calm and deep breathing leads to long life, while quick and shallow breaths can shorten your life. So what is your hurry?

The current economy and business environment could be referred to as a SWOT Cloud, a shifting set of circumstances that conceals all manner of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The best approach to see your way, much less navigate your way through the cloud safely and successfully is to understand these four elements in relation to each other. In terms of the Mandala Chart, this means seeing the big picture, the small details, and the cross-connections all at the same time with flexible focus.

The SWOT Analysis model is originally attributed to Albert Humphrey from his work at Stanford University in the 1960s and 1970s. The purpose of a SWOT analysis is to give you more clarity in thinking about nebulous or complex business environments. It is typically done on a 4-square matrix, which often ends up as little more than a checklist in table form. Though it is still widely used today, SWOT Analysis has undergone some criticism, partly by those who want to add to it to promote their own new models, but also I believe because of the limitation of the 2-dimensional matrix.

The A-frame Mandala Chart starts with the 4 SWOT factors, but leaves the frames in between open to enable you to view the situation from 8 vantage points, each of which can be expanded by 8 if you want to expand to the B-frame Mandala Chart with 64 elements. Theoretically, you can expand even further by multiplying any frame by 8, but as a practical matter this is likely to get you lost in space. The downloadable A-frame Mandala SWOT Chart is a practical place to begin.

Issues with 2-dimensional thinking

The first thing to consider is why the traditional 4-frame SWOT Analysis Matrix tends to break down in the face of a true SWOT Cloud environment. The Matrix is useful when comparing two fixed sets of variables, hence 2 x 2 = 4 frames. You have an x-axis and a y-axis. Everything in that domain is framed 2-dimensionally above and below the horizontal axis, and the right or left of the vertical axis. This can be quite helpful when plotting the relationship of two fixed sets of variables, but does not allow for potentially significant influences in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, dimensions and beyond. Moreover, all comparisons happen with two variables as if they were separate entities, black and white. There is no convenient way to visualize such factors as changes over time, or what would happen if you introduced new variables that could influence, or even totally change the situation.

You might say that the 8-frame Mandala Chart is also 2-dimensional, but it only looks this way on paper. It looks very different as you gain experience in using the Mandala Chart to give you flexible focus for real situations. The 8-frame Mandala Chart gives you a sliding scale, a way to shift your perspective freely, and a means of encountering serendipitous solutions in the process. Serendipity is the process of making a valuable discovery in the process of looking for something else. It is the art of peripheral vision, of catching something important, that might otherwise be missed if you were too attached to one set of assumptions or a fixed point of view.

Beyond checklist thinking

We have been taught to make checklists from an early age. It is difficult to overcome the habit of thinking that if we just write down a list of things to do, of things to check, then everything will go smoothly. In your experience, how often has this been so?

A checklist might work well if you are planning a trip and want to be sure you pack everything you will need. It can certainly help you remember and organize a shopping list. It can also be useful as a cross-check of procedures for maintenance of a machine. However, when it comes to something more complicated, like planning a business strategy, making a difficult decision in complex circumstances, or dealing with almost anything that is hidden inside the SWOT Cloud, then the checklist can not only be useless but actually harmful, in that it limits your ability to keep an open mind with flexible focus.

What goes in the empty frames?

Unlike many Mandala Chart templates, the SWOT Mandala Chart only fills in the four corner frames, and starts with the frames in between being empty. Once the corner squares for STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES, OPPORTUNITIES, and THREATS have been seeded, then you look at the chart with peripheral vision, inviting new insights and discoveries that are not likely to be found by further extending the list.

Another way of looking at the known elements is to consider them as a combination of internal and external, positive and negative factors. Strengths and Weaknesses are internal factors, whereas Opportunities and Threats are external factors. Recognizing the source or location of the factors can already assist in giving you a more flexible point of view than you would get from gazing at the shifting patterns in the SWOT Cloud.

Because SWOT is a tool of analysis, you start by listing and looking at the known elements in the corners. Then with peripheral vision you are more likely to encounter the insights of intuition, in the fields of serendipity.

Group Brainwriting SWOT Exercise

Brainwriting is a technique first introduced by the late Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in Physics, and later developed by Horst Geschka and his associates at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.

In a nutshell, it involves writing an idea on a card, and then passing the cards around the table to repeat the process while adding ideas to a list that was started by someone else, and alternates to another person each time the cards are passed. This has two advantages. First, because it is done in silence and anonymously as writing, no one is able to dominate the group through authority or outspokenness. Second, because you are exposed to and stimulated by the ideas of others, you tend to develop by increments a more flexible point of view.

Once the cards are filled, or have made a complete round, the ideas are grouped and shared for further analysis. There are various ways of doing the Brainwriting technique, using cards or on a sheet of paper, but the end result is a large number of ideas produced in a small amount of time.

This can be applied to the SWOT Analysis as well, by using color coded cards for the for factors in SWOT. Once the best ideas have been sorted and selected, they can be added to the SWOT Mandala Chart and presented to the group on a single sheet of paper for discussion.

The advantage of this approach is that it gives you access to the wisdom of the group operating in flexible focus, where the sky is the limit. The best way to understand the SWOT Mandala Chart is to use it yourself, and experience how it helps clear away the SWOT Clouds.

Flexible Focus #18: Engage visual thinking

by William Reed on September 9, 2010

In the art of flexible focus, dimension is more important than sequence. To emphasize this point I have selected for review eight of the Mandala Charts which have been featured in earlier articles in this series. Like a card deck that can be shuffled to create new combinations, these Mandala templates can be reshuffled and reviewed for a new perspective. In a world where change is constant, this is one way to stay on top of the wave.

Through the links below you can download the Mandala Charts, as well as reference the articles in this series where they first appeared. Each one contains a visual image in the central frame which was selected as a visual anchor for the central theme. These images resonate powerfully with the sub-themes, and can stimulate new images by association.

The images can help you recall and recreate new ideas around the central theme, as well as serve as a connecting bridge between the surrounding sub-themes. Images keep your Mandala interesting and alive, and if you print them out, you can also sketch images of your own inside the surrounding frames to enhance the key words, phrases, and text which you will add.

The images are assembled in the Mandala shown here, referenced from the articles and downloads below. In the conventional Mandala fashion, they are marked A (bottom center), B (left center), C (top center), D (right center), E (bottom left), F (top left), G (top right), F (bottom right).

Here are a few notes to set your thoughts in motion. For easy reference, and to trigger new insights, download the Mandala Charts and review the original articles from each of the links below.

8 Fields of Life (From Flexible Focus #3: The Principle of Interdependence)

Happily interwoven?…or a tangled mess?

The image of a Celtic Knot is a powerful icon of the 8 dimensions of life interwoven in perfect balance. The weave of the knot is loose enough that each dimension is distinct, and yet each strand crosses through every other. Look at this knot as you consider each of the 8 fields of your life, and ask yourself if they are in balance. Which fields need more time, care, or attention?

Mandala on Health (From Flexible Focus #4: The 8 Frames of Life: Health)

Radiantly connected?…or bent out of shape?

The image of a radiant tropical sun symbolizes the radiant quality of health. It includes what you eat, how you move, your attitude, and your relationships. It makes no sense to sacrifice your health for the sake of profit or convenience. Consider all of the factors that contribute to your health, and you will have many leverage points to improve it. Are you neglecting one or more of these factors in your life?

Refocus Your Business (From Flexible Focus #11: The Principle of Comprehensiveness)

Focus on the spaces between…and the possibilities therein

The optical illusion of flashing dots is a reminder of how we need to look closely to see what is really there. If you keep your eyes open you will discover many opportunities to make improvements. It is not enough to make a living. You must also make a life. Business and work can easily dominate your life, occupying an unreasonable amount of time and energy. The irony is that working harder is not always working better. If your work does not support your mission and identity, it will create conflict and sap your energy. Look for better, smarter ways to work. Find ways to work with others to accomplish more than you can by yourself.

Empowerment Mandala (From Flexible Focus #10: Become the Change)

Are you receiving fish?…or learning how to fish?

The image shows the moment of catching a fish, not asking for one. Empowerment is the ability to fish and fend for yourself. It is the opposite of entitlement, which is expecting others to fish for you. Constant preoccupation with receiving confines creativity. It is better to build momentum through action, than to succumb to inertia through passivity. To quote Dr. Seuss, with brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

Magic of Mindset (From Flexible Focus #9: The Magic of Mindset)

Rabbit or duck illusion…and mental perception?

This image appears to be a rabbit, until you shift your focus and it appears to be a duck! It is a reminder that mindset is truly magic. The way you look at things determines what you see. Life tends to live up to our expectations as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t be taken in by first impressions, because things and people are not often as they seem. Both positive and negative judgments can be contagious. Keep an open mind and a positive attitude, and you will attract people of like mind.

Opportunities for Engagement (From Flexible Focus #12: The 8 Frames of Life: Business)

Keep your ideas flowing…Keep your passion high

The image of a fountain of ideas spiraling from an open mind is enhanced by the color of red for passion. The flow of ideas is a measure of your interest, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Keep it strong by looking for new ways to engage with people in your work and private pursuits. Business is a dynamic process, and you are better off being an active player than a passive spectator. Look at the Mandala and ask yourself, where are there opportunities for greater engagement?

Decision Mandala (From Flexible Focus #16: The Decision Trap)

Learn from others…with a better perspective

The image of question marks lost in a labyrinth shows the difficulty of making decisions in complex circumstances. Many of life’s challenges do not lend themselves to simple logic. Sometimes it is best to lift yourself out of the labyrinth and seek wisdom from a higher perspective. Well selected quotes can provide that perspective, but the inspiration of a quote depends on timing and its relevance to the problem at hand. Working with the Mandala chart you will find that eight quotes can be better than one.

Karma Connections (From Flexible Focus #15: Karma and Connections)

Act, action, performance…not fate or consequences

The image shows the interplay of opposites, the balance of yin and yang. It also shows the dynamics of interaction. The more actively you engage in the game, the more opportunities you have to take advantage of critical moments. The pitch on which you play is where you are here and now. When you see that negative words and thoughts lead to negative results, it is easier to leave them behind. Karma is a dynamic and ongoing process. Your actions are the script for your life.

The visual images in each of these Mandala charts help you to engage visual thinking. Visit them often.

NOTE: The articles in the Flexible Focus series are updated with graphics, links, and attachments on the FLEXIBLE FOCUS Webbrain, a dynamic and navigable map of the entire series. It has a searchable visual index, and is updated each week as the series develops.

Flexible Focus #16: The decision trap

by William Reed on August 26, 2010

Ambiguity causes anxiety in those who are inflexible, and creates possibilities in the minds of the people who have flexible focus.

But tolerance for ambiguity drops when you have to make a decision. Urgency adds pressure, and when the decision affects the core areas of your life, you can feel as if you are lost in a labyrinth of choices.

However, a labyrinth is only a mystery to those trapped within its walls. The way to free yourself from the trap is to gain a bird’s eye perspective, which helps you see where you are now, and how to find your way out.

Decision is a strong word, a choice, a judgment, a commitment to a purpose. Decisiveness is a quality of successful people, who make decisions quickly and change their minds slowly. This enables them to take advantage of opportunities that are missed or go unnoticed by those who take a long time to make a decision, and then easily change their minds.

Your decision sets the wheels in motion, whereas with indecision the wheel turns without you. This insight is the origin behind such sayings as, he who hesitates is lost, and strike while the iron is hot. As long as you are in motion you can steer the vehicle. The moment you stop moving you start to drift, and are at the mercy of the elements.

Opportunities come in critical moments

So says Roger Hamilton, author of Your Life Your Legacy, who compares decision making with what you do the moment the soccer ball is passed to you. Depending on your position on the pitch and who is around you, you may pass, run with, or kick the ball. If you hesitate then the ball, and the opportunity, will be taken away from you.

Roger also recommends Six Criteria for Decision Making, which can keep you moving in the right direction.

  1. Fits Passion and Purpose
  2. Allows Value Creation
  3. Allows Leverage
  4. Failure steers not sinks
  5. Downside learning motivates
  6. Upside learning inspires

When faced with an important decision in your career, the alternatives usually contain some attractive elements mixed in with other elements that make you hesitate. The temptation is to compromise and take what you can get, rationalizing that no option will be perfect. However, if you disregard an important element now, it will eventually come back and cause you to regret or revise your decision.

If you can align all six of the decision criteria, then you are already out of the labyrinth.

Learn from others with a better perspective

A great way to gain perspective is to gather quotes from people who have wisdom and experience with decisions. You can search famous quotes online using key words such as decisions, dilemma, choices, or whatever word works best for you.

Here are some quotes that I searched and selected using the word decisions.

  • Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity. (~Michael Jordan)
  • It is never to late to be what you might have been. (~George Eliot)
  • You will always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. (~Wayne Gretsky)
  • It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. (~Roy Disney)
  • Life is the sum of all of your choices. (~Albert Camus)
  • Indecision becomes decision with time. (~Unknown)
  • Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
  • Fortune favors the prepared mind. (~Louis Pasteur)

When you face an important decision that does not easily yield to logical choices, place your favorite quotes on a Mandala Chart and use them as a tool for accessing the best perspective on your decision. You can download a PDF featuring the quotes above as a DECISION MANDALA for practice, and then create your own.

This is quick way to create a roundtable of advisors to help you with your decision, a portable mastermind that costs nothing and transcends time and space. The process of collecting the quotes helps you refine your criteria, and the time spent looking at the quotes in the Mandala Chart format brings things into sharper focus.

You can apply the same process working with decision criteria. Eight criteria should be enough for most situations. The Mandala Chart can be useful as a self-coaching tool, or to organize your thoughts before seeking outside advice. It can sort through the insignificant many, and give you a field of focus for the significant few.

Making better decisions

How do you make good decisions when the choice is not easy?

Do you list the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative? A good beginning, but it is often hard to weigh emotions and intangibles.

Do you consult with your friends? Nice to have moral support, but friendly advice can end up making you more confused than ever. Advice is cheap, and none of people you ask are likely to have as much invested in the outcome as you do.

Do you gather more information? Worthwhile to a point, but too much analysis leads to decision paralysis.

Do you flip a coin? Consult an oracle? Ultimately the decision will be back to you.

The only way to get clarity on a decision is to reflect on it with a calm mind and a broad perspective. The Mandala Chart can help you do this.

The quality of your decisions determines whether they become traps or opportunities.

Have you ever invested years of your life pursuing a goal that turned out to be a trap? You work very hard to get a degree, only to find on graduation that you are overqualified, or unemployable. You sacrifice in order to achieve career success, only to find that what you really sacrificed was your health. You invest money to start a new business, only to go deeper in debt.

Chances are that you know people for whom the pursuit of a goal was not all that it promised.

There are so many quotes by wise and accomplished people that speak in favor of having goals, that it seems sacrilegious to say anything against the idea. Yet through experience we find that goals are not always golden at the end of the rainbow.

Goal-Free Living is a highly acclaimed bestseller by Stephen Shapiro, an international business consultant with an impressive list of clients and testimonials. Shapiro says that excessive focus on achievement leaves us ever hopeful for a future that never comes, and  he demonstrates through the lives of real people that you can have an extraordinary life without traditional goals, schedules, and plans. Featured in Newsweek, The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, and on the cover of O-The Oprah Magazine, he has clearly tapped into a mother lode of sentiment regarding the limitations of a goal-oriented life.

Goal-oriented living may be a by-product of Western culture’s thinking about progress. It has brought us much good, and much damage at the same time. Single minded-pursuit of goals has upset the balance of life, interrelationships, and our environment.

There are three common patterns in goal-oriented thinking which are self-defeating in the end-result.

Distracted Pursuit

Chasing after whatever appears on your screen, whatever looks best at the time. Like a kid in a candy store, you grab whatever is in reach, and try to fill your pockets. But in the end you have nothing to show, and no real sense of satisfaction. Succumbing to suggestions that lead you anywhere and nowhere, you don’t stay with anything long enough to create lasting value. You end up empty-handed as a result of losing the big picture.

The mark for distracted pursuit is the memo pad.

Single-Minded Focus

Going for the goal no matter what or who gets in your way. Like a bull bent on destruction, by sheer force of determination you actually reach your goal, only to realize that other people have abandoned you, as you have abandoned them. You end up alone, as a result of single-minded pursuit, without considering the consequences.

The mark for single-minded focus is the checklist.

Stepladder Thinking

Pursuing the traditional path of education, leading to a career, followed by retirement. Like a cabin dweller chopping wood for the long winter, you patiently pursue the tasks set out before you, putting off immediate gratification for the sake of a secure future, only to find that your best laid plans don’t turn out as expected. You walk through life with blinders, as a result missing out on the broader view.

The mark for stepladder thinking is the calendar.

There is another approach which enables you to follow your instincts, get things done, and get results over time, without falling into the traps of common goal-oriented thinking.

Flexible Focus

Being able to see the big picture, focus on the details, and catch all of the connections, with a free and flexible mind that can achieve goals without being goal-oriented. In Asian philosophy this is known as working without being attached to results. It is a fundamental mindset that has spiritual roots, but delivers material results. It is wise, because it recognizes that things are not as fixed as they appear, and that flexible focus frees your mind to discover, to create, and to innovate. The tool of choice for flexible focus is the mandala chart.

Caught in the traps of the first three goal-oriented patterns of thinking, you may be aware of the limitations, but unsure of how to avoid them. You can make efforts to achieve life-work balance, to spend more time with your family, to go to the gym a few times a week, or to eat a more balanced diet. But unless you fundamentally change your thinking about goals, you will simply repeat the same patterns and fall into the same traps, even as you pursue the goal of life-work balance.

The mandala chart can help you achieve flexible focus. It works like a 3 x 3 viewfinder, with 9 frames. Putting yourself in the center, automatically gives you 8 surrounding windows, a field for flexible focus.

On the mandala chart as in life, you are surrounded by issues and goals related to health, business, finances, home, and other important concerns, but none of them dominate because you are at the center. Moreover, the center is not fixed but flexible. The center is wherever you are, and the field is whatever surrounds you. You are not so much goal-free, as free of your goals.

Download a visual reminder of the four approaches to goals. Where are you in relation to your goals? To keep your goals in balance, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I taking consistent focused action to move closer what is important to me?
  • Do I regularly consider the impact of my actions on others?
  • Are my plans flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances?
  • Can I see the big picture, the small detail, and the connections all at once?
  • Which of my current goals are potential traps, and which are opportunities?