“How might we…”

Here’s a little change that can have a big impact. Try it. It works.

You will literally never hear him say, “I can’t.” He uses more constructive versions of that sentiment that emphasize the possible, such as “I could if I…”

…IDEO’s favorite antidote to negative speech patterns is the phrase “How might we…?” It was introduced to us by Charles Warren, now salesforce.com’s senior vice president of product design, as an op­timistic way of seeking out new possibilities in the world….In three disarmingly simple words, it captures much of our perspective on creative groups. The “how” suggests that improvement is always possible. The only question remain­ing is how we will find success. The word “might” temporarily lowers the bar a little. It allows us to consider wild or improbable ideas instead of self-editing from the very beginning, giving us more chance of a breakthrough. And the “we” establishes own­ership of the challenge, making it clear that not only will it be a group effort, but it will be our group.

“What do you think we should do?”

Years ago, I used to work with my oldest brother. He was the general manger of our real estate development company, and I was our project manager. We no longer work together on a daily basis, but we’re still partners in a couple of ventures. I learned a lot about leadership while working with him, and still do to this day.

One of my earliest lessons came when I brought my brother a problem that I was struggling with, seeking his input on what we should do. I can’t remember what the problem was, but I clearly remember his answer. He said,

Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.

He was essentially asking me to come to him with a solution already in mind for whatever problem it was that we faced. He would gladly offer input on my proposed course of action, but to come to him before formulating anything was lazy. He was right!

Saul Bellow put it a little more pessimistically when he wrote,

When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.

I was reminded of both my brother’s and Bellow’s sayings when I overheard a member of our leadership team, in response to a request for direction, asking,

What do you think we should do?

What a wonderful question! It carries all the intent of the “Bring me solutions” directive, with none of the pessimism of Bellow’s accomplice theory, and with all the optimistic empowerment that I like to see in our company culture.

On a related note, here’s a great story about empowering leadership and empowered heroes.

The glamorization of urgency

Way back in 1992, I didn’t fully appreciate the wisdom in Alabama’s, “I’m in a hurry [and don’t know why].”

I rediscovered the song a few days ago, and really listened to the lyrics. Man! Those boys from Fort Payne were on to something.

Our culture glamorizes urgency. I recently saw About Time, a wonderful film about a man who can travel back in time and relive moments. The movie is sort of like an inverted take on Groundhog Day, but rather than being forced to relive the same day, he can choose to relive any moment at any time (with some important limitations). And like that Bill Murray classic, the protagonist in About Time uses his situation to become a better person – particularly a better friend, son, brother, father, and husband.

But even our super-gifted hero – who can go back in time as often as he wants – happily and frenetically rushes through breakfast with his family as if the world will end if he doesn’t get everyone out the door by 7:30!

Why would he do that? This glamorization of urgency is starting to feel to me like a grand conspiracy.

Think about every morning scene from every movie or TV show that features a family at home: The alarm rattles mom and dad awake, people hop down the stairs pushing a leg into their pants, toast explodes from toasters, orange juices spills across tables, dogs bark, people run out the door with a piece of bacon dangling from their mouths. Everyone off to catch the bus, beat the bell, make the train, or whatever. Everyone off trying to live their lives according to some arbitrary schedule set by no one that everyone follows because that’s what everyone else does.

Can’t be late
I leave in plenty of time
Shaking hands with the clock
I can’t stop
I’m on a roll and I’m ready to rock.

I’m in a hurry to get things done
I rush and rush until life’s no fun
All I really gotta do is live and die
But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.

I hear a voice
That says I’m running behind
I better pick up my pace
It’s a race
And there ain’t no room
For someone in second place.

And all the while, everyone is smiling the sort of smile that conveys a sense of pride in their urgency. It’s like they’re trying to convince us (and themselves) that, “I am hurrying because I have an important place in society. Other people need me to do things that are more important to me than being present here with these people.”

The ideal condition, it would seem, is frenetic urgency in service to an arbitrary time keeper. But why?