Published on December 30th, 2015 | by Nancy F. Clark0
How About Experimenting At Work?
By Kathryn Britton—
Most of us have something we want to do better at work. What comes to mind for you? Maybe it’s time management, or giving more effective feedback, or making your manager aware of your contributions, or building a network, or getting home in time to eat dinner with your children. Think for a minute about a change you want to make.
There are lots of people who will give you helpful suggestions, including me and other recent authors. Michelle McQuaid explains how to stop worrying, and Melissa Heisler suggests ways to balance work and life. But that doesn’t mean our ideas will work for you. You are a unique person with your own habits, skills, history, and attitudes. You are in your own special situation. So you have to work out your own unique solution.
One way to proceed is to think it through carefully, research what other people have done, make a plan, and then proceed. For some people, that’s the way to go. But many of us get discouraged and give up about half way through the planning.
So here’s another way to proceed. From wherever you are right now, think of a small experiment that will move you in the direction you want to go. Try it for a week or two. Then evaluate how it worked.
If it worked well, take time to enjoy your success. Share it with a good friend. Then think of another experiment to take you further.
If it was a partial success, note what was good about it and what could be improved. Use your curiosity to derive your next experiment.
If the experiment didn’t work, what can you learn about your unique self in your unique environment? Did it require you to be more outgoing than comes naturally? Did it require a skill you don’t have yet? Was it too big a step? Would it require you to have a different personality? Use this data to create an experiment that is a better fit for you and your circumstances.
I have had a number of failed experiments. When they happen, I remember author Geoffrey Colvin’s story about figure skaters. Middle-of-the-road skaters practice as many hours as topnotch skaters, but they practice things they can already do well, while the topnotch skaters practice things they can’t do well … yet. Colvin says that topnotch skaters are used to falling on their butts. So whenever an experiment fails, I think, “I just fell on my butt again.” That takes the sting out of the failure and helps me remember that nobody was born knowing how to work well in today’s complex work environments. We all have to keep learning how to fit in and contribute.
Let me illustrate with the experiments of Abigail (not her real name).
Abigail is a working mother with small children, a work-at-home husband, and a demanding job in a big city. She is also starting to put on weight. Her boss has just asked her to have frequent dinners with potential clients to build more business. Abigail is concerned about missing time with family and spending even more time at the table and away from the gym. So she proposes an experiment to her boss, “I’ll do this once or twice a week, but on those days, I will leave early enough to walk home and eat dinner and play with my children before seeing clients.” Her boss says, “Sure, let’s give it a try.” He is relieved because he expected a lot more push-back.
Abigail tries experiment #1 for a month. She finds she can’t quite bring herself to leave the office on time to walk home. There’s always one more thing to do at work, so she often doesn’t even have time to eat dinner with her children. On reflection, she realizes that she doesn’t make transitions easily. Once she starts something, it’s hard for her to stop. Her husband laughs that she stays up late because she can’t stop what she’s doing to go to bed and she can’t stop sleeping to get up early. So that experiment doesn’t work for her.
Time for experiment #2. Abigail proposes to her boss that on the days that she is scheduled to go out with clients, she comes in late. That way, she gets to have breakfast with her children, walk them to school, and walk to work. The children have to be at school on time, so she can’t do just one more thing.
That pattern works so well that Abigail decides to extend it to experiment #3. She asks her boss for permission to come in late every day, reminding him that she often works too late to have dinner with her children. Some days she still walks to work, but other days she goes to the gym after her children are in school. This experiment also works well and has the added benefit that her husband really appreciates having regular time to himself.
Other people at work have noticed Abigail’s new schedule, and they see her extra weight melting away. The success of experiment #3 stimulates a colleague to suggest experiment #4 for the whole department. “Let’s all wear pedometers and compete to see who logs the most steps every day.” The friendly competition makes people get up and move. Some start walking to work. The boss notices that people are more alert and putting more energy into their work.
Remember the wealth of advice out there? It can be a great source of ideas for experiments to make life better. Whether the experiments are successes or failures, they help us learn how to work in a complex world.
Kathryn Britton, MAPP, life and writing coach at Theano Coaching LLC, co-editor of Character Strengths Matter and co-author of Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Follow her on Twitter @kathrynbritton.
Article photo by Yogendra Joshi