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Strategies for Pacing

Every day, new requests came in to the chief information officer of a health care company. The U.S. health care industry was in turmoil. Technology was in flux. Managers of the company's business units who streamed into his office needed new systems, software, or upgrades, constantly—and they needed them now. The CIO knew that this type of relentless pace often leads organizations to swamp and drown their people, creating high rates of turnover and burnout.

He addressed this challenge by developing a strategy to manage the pace of his work using internal contracts. When a new request came in, he would only take it on if other assignments were completed or removed. How did he get away with this? He had an unassailable track record. He was almost always on time and on budget, and often early and under budget. Performance gave him a large store of credibility. He also benchmarked at least every three years so he could demonstrate that his department fell in the top 10 percent of IS departments in the nation. This helped him repel attempts to overwork his people. He found a way to govern pace in an otherwise unpaced industry.

But one Monday morning, his boss put this system to its greatest test. The CEO called him in and dropped a major project on him. The CIO began pulling out his folder of contracts, but the CEO stopped him. "I know about the folder," he said. "Great tactic and it usually works, but it won't work today. No contracts. No folder. I need to get this done in six weeks." No fool, the CIO put away his folder and began to take notes. He would need five people on this project for six weeks, and even at that, this would prove difficult.

That afternoon, he assembled a team and told them about the project. "We've got a big one here. From the CEO. It's a must-do job." Given the urgency, his next words were surprising. He then told the team that they would not start on the project until the following Monday at 7 a.m., a week later. "In the meantime," he said, "today, tomorrow, and Wednesday, I want you to clean off your desks. Delegate, postpone, or cancel. You know I hate to break a contract or a commitment, but we have no choice here. If you need any help from me to do any of that, let me know. End of day Wednesday, I want everything off your desk, and I want you gone."

What he said next was even more surprising. "Thursday and Friday, you are on vacation. Free. It'll come out of my account, no PTO charge to you. Also, no e-mails, no phone calls, no pagers. Go home. Rest up and enjoy yourself. Starting Monday at 7, your life will be this project. I'm not even going to tell you what it is until then because you are so conscientious that you'd spend Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday working on it. I don't want you to. I want you rested on Monday."

This unconventional approach to starting an urgent major project for the CEO got the team's attention. No one missed the symbolic importance of his breaking from his normal "no cancellation" rule, and nobody missed the symbolic importance of free days off up front. The CIO knew that the staff would be working flat out on the project for weeks on end. He also knew that he could not guarantee them a break at the end of the project. Some new project might be dropped in at that point. He could control the front end of this journey, so he carved out time for them to rest up before heading downstream. He rewarded them up front as an act of faith and trust. He did not need to elaborate.

In the process, however, he had expended a week of his six-week window—yet another risky move for an important project. The CIO, a former combat officer in Vietnam, was familiar with taking measured risks. His pacing paid off—even with the week to prepare. The team cleared away other projects that could have distracted them and came in ready to work on Monday. They finished the project a day early. Furthermore, they already had their reward, and he didn't have to risk promising them vacation after the project only to have the river (or the CEO) lead him to break his word.

At first glance, as part of an organization rushing hell-bent-for-leather downstream setting a sane pace seems impossible. It amounts to saying that you should take a leisurely trip over Niagara Falls. Gravity would seem to argue otherwise. But whitewater paddlers and experienced managers know ways to control their pace and progress even when the environment races on around you. Being aware of the need to pace yourself constitutes the first step. Building an awareness of when you are going dangerously fast or drowning in change is important. If you recognize the need to control your pace, what should you do about it? The following strategies can help you to pace yourself in a turbulent environment.

Create a "Not To Do" List

Superhuman exertions or biochemical boosters might help in the short term, but they do not offer a long-term solution to relentless change. You can't keep moving faster as the environment moves faster. You need to recognize your own limits and look at what you can reasonably accomplish—not just what is asked of you. Pacing involves deciding not only what to do, that is, the standard focus of our "to do" lists, but also what not to do. You need to decide what part of this roiling mess to engage, and point the nose of your boat in that direction.

The not-to-do list is an easy concept to understand but difficult to implement. It can mean saying "no" to powerful people in the organization or making uncomfortable compromises in standards. You need to demonstrate your effectiveness to make your demand for pacing credible and show that pacing leads to better results. This will give you the ability to say "no" to projects that will push you and your people over the edge. Think of the CFO. Think of the CIO.

You also need to acquire sufficient comfort in laying out explicitly what you can and cannot do—to recognize that as a human being you have limitations, and to work to make others recognize this about both you and them. This doesn't make you a less effective employee. In fact, it means more likely that you will prove a more effective employee over the middle to longer haul. You might disappoint some people in the short run, but you will get more work done, and better work, in the long run. How much does medical leave cost a firm? Or depression? Or divorce? While some may be disappointed today, more people will respect that you know your own limits.

You might object that this pacing isn't possible. Your boss is not going to go away, your kids are not going to go away, and, hopefully, your spouse is not going to go away. You can and should limit debt, maximize savings (especially in retirement accounts), and negotiate severance packages. All of those practices keep you as buoyant as possible. Still, your mortgage payment comes due at the end of the month. There are some things that you cannot say "no" to. But you need to recognize the costs of lost productivity due to exhaustion. You either pay now in confronting those making demands on your time, or you pay later in the impact on your health and performance.

If you believe this is not discussable, that is a problem. You can either hide what you are doing and surreptitiously avoid commitments, or you can make it discussable. Think about how you present it. For example, if you talk to your boss about the pain and suffering of the demands on your time, you might just come off looking like a whiner. But if you come in with information about the costs of exhaustion and overwork or with a plan to alter or reorganize work, you might fund a more receptive audience.

If You Think You Can't Do This, You Don't Know Jack

If you think protecting your time in this way will be the end of your career, consider the story a manager at General Electric once told to Greg. Years earlier, as a junior executive, he received a charge to run a cross-functional project for his boss, who was high up in the GE constellation. With this authority, the junior executive began calling leaders from different functions to participate. Most of the calls went well, but then he reached one manager who was not interested. This manager said he didn't have the time.

The junior executive said, "I don't think you understand. My boss said we need to do this, and we need your involvement." The boss was of rank, so it should have carried sufficient weight...or so he thought. But the stubborn manager said that if there were something of importance in it for him, he would move it up on the list. Absent that, he had a lot of important things to do, so he was not going to do this. The junior executive was shocked. That manager, according to the story, was Jack Welch. Drawing the line on what he was willing to do certainly did not stifle his career progress since he became CEO. No one questioned whether Jack Welch worked hard, but he also had the courage and wisdom to draw the line.

Build Breaks in the Action

New York Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez reportedly said, "Never be in a hurry to lose." One of Gomez's greatest rivals was another Hall of Famer, Jimmie Foxx, who played for Yankee archrivals the Philadelphia Athletics and later the Boston Red Sox. Gomez knew that all too often, head-to-head, Foxx outdid the great Gomez. Indeed, Gomez described the powerful Foxx as "having muscles in his hair." One day Gomez found himself facing Foxx late in a close game with several runners on base. The game was at stake, and the screams of tens of thousands of fans emphasized the point. The Yankee catcher went through his signs and Gomez shook them all off. The catcher went through the signs again. Again, Gomez shook them all off. The catcher went through the signs a third time. The stadium throbbed with noise as Gomez shook him off. Three full sets of signs; three full sets rejected.

Puzzled and frustrated, the catcher did something that he did not want to do—he asked the umpire for a time-out and approached the pitching mound. Gomez viewed the mound as his private domain, and his alone. He did not welcome visitors. Before the catcher could reach the mound, Gomez growled, "What are you doing here?" The catcher pointed out that there was a game in progress, that Gomez had only three pitches, and that he had shaken off the catcher's sign three times. He needed to throw the ball. Just what did the great Lefty Gomez want the catcher to do? Gomez responded gruffly and with diffidence, "Go back behind the plate. I'll pitch when I'm ready. As long as I'm holding the ball, he can't hit it."

Gomez could not make his nemesis vanish. Gomez could not make the situation vanish. He would not walk away. What he could do was to build a break in the action where he could gather his thoughts and concentration. It was all he had left, and he would not relinquish it. The point in business is the same. You may not be able to change the challenges that face you at the plate or change the rules of the game overall, but you can influence how fast you go. No matter how much pressure you face, remember it is your mound. You control your own pace. Never be in a hurry to lose. Slowing down may well affect the outcome and can break the other person's rhythm.

A brief stop for lunch on the river or a pause in an eddy behind a rock can do wonders, renewing your energies for the rapids ahead. For example, on the day that Greg's group of dories was to take on Lava Falls, lunch went long and included time for a siesta—the river would likely prove a bit less turbulent in the afternoon, and the crews definitely more rested for the most challenging of rapids.

During the day and the throughout the week, you need to create breaks in the action—perhaps a few moments for reflection or exercise in the morning. It might be a brief meditation before you go to bed to clear the day from your head. You need to enforce and protect these moments, even when the waters are rising. You need places in your life where you can stop and get your bearings, to catch your breath before plunging back into the action. If you think you can live without these breaks, you fool only yourself, and eventually yourself will refuse the fooling. If you think breaks will naturally occur in permanent whitewater or will appear as a reward for all your hard work, you also fool yourself. You need to seek them out. It might mean that you have to take lunch instead of eating at your desk. You might need to respect weekends instead of working straight through them. This is what negotiators call "going to the balcony." Skilled negotiators sense when negotiations stall, and they take a break to step out of the room. This can help break a deadlock or reframe discussions. As in music, sometimes the pauses in the score are the most important part of a performance.

Get Good Sleep

The previous discussion about sleep deprivation and its impact should make it clear that you need to get more sleep, particularly in a turbulent and stressful environment. But quality of sleep is also important. In Sleep to Save Your Life, Dr. Gerard Lombardo offers tips for better sleep, including9

  • Get the right amount of sleep for you.
  • Keep a regular schedule, based on your responsibilities.
  • Relax and give yourself time to unwind. Think evening exercise or a warm bath.
  • Create the right environment. Watch how children hold to rituals such as ordering precious stuffed animals or hearing a bedtime story. We suit up to go to work. Find a way to "suit down" to get ready for sleep.
  • Use your bedroom for sleeping (and perhaps one other activity). Keep television and bother outside the door.
  • Don't go to bed until you are feeling sleepy. Your body says "when." Listen.
  • Wake at the same time.
  • Do not take naps that interfere with your nighttime sleep (although napping can be useful, as noted in the following section).
  • Cut down or eliminate cigarettes, as well as alcohol and caffeine, especially after 4 p.m.
  • If you must eat before bedtime, eat sparingly.
  • Make peace with the world. Put the hard decisions and conversations off until tomorrow. With those you can, get and give the warmth of a hug, a kiss, or a sincere handshake. Feel the love.

Falling asleep resembles catching a biological or circadian wave. In the end, "at the heart of all sleep problems, whether medical, behavioral, or psychological in origin, is respect for what your body wants to do, which is sleep at certain times of the day and night and be active at others."

Take a Nap

Napping is a bit controversial. Many people associate it with laziness. Some researchers laud naps; others issue some cautions, particularly if it interferes with evening sleep. Surprisingly, some very successful people take "power naps" in the middle of the day. They actually carve out this little peaceful backwater in the middle of a rip-roaring nonstop river. Turn off the BlackBerry, shut the door, and take a 10 to 20 minute nap. We once knew a famous trial lawyer who tucked away an Oriental rug in his office, and most afternoons (when he was not grilling witnesses in court) he unrolled the rug and pulled out a pillow. He closed the door and had his secretary hold all his calls. He found himself more productive afterward just as the research would predict. Similarly, Greg worked with an executive in his forties in London who had a heart attack as a young man that made him serious about his level of stress and pacing. Every day at his lunch break, he left the office and went to take a short nap. He rose to the top of his function.

Most companies will not actually give you formal napping time or space (although there are a few). So you might have to engage in guerilla napping. If napping in the office proves impossible—particularly if you inhabit a cubicle city—then follow the lead of people keeping a pillow and blanket in the back of the car. Just crawl into this little metal sleep chamber and tilt the seat back. Or you might leave for an appointment or lunch 15 minutes early, taking advantage of a short nap on your arrival. You will arrive at the meeting refreshed (just pack a comb so you don't arrive with bed head). A little creativity will also lead you to find other ways to grab 15 winks when 40 are not possible. A trip for a massage or acupuncture can also offer an opportunity to stretch out and unwind.

If you feel guilty about napping, remember that research shows that people perform better after a nap even if you had a good night's sleep. It also shows that they need less sleep at night. Of course, power napping is no substitute for a solid night's sleep. But when you are flying the red-eye or finishing that late-night project, a nap can provide enough break in the action to help you recharge. You may even live longer. A recent six-year study of Greek adults showed that regular nappers had 37 percent less chance of dying from a heart attack with the benefits appearing especially strong for men.10

The rising need to nap has led to a slightly greater social acceptance of napping. Some companies such as Yarde Metals in Southington, Connecticut, allow or encourage "napping on the job." Office furniture retailers are offering napping "furniture" such as napping pods and "fatigue management" products.

If you nap, you will be in good company. Great nappers of history such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Napoleon, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and John Kennedy may not have had napping pods or what Deloitte Consulting in Pittsburgh terms "napnasiums," but they knew the benefits of napping. Edison kept a cot in his lab, and Sir Winston said:

  • You must sleep some time between lunch and dinner, and no half-way measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That's what I always do. Don't think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That's a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one—well, at least one and a half, I'm sure. When the war started, I had to sleep during the day because that was the only way I could cope with my responsibilities.

They also knew how to nap: right length (20 to 30 minutes), right time (not too late so as to affect nighttime sleep patterns), and in a comfortable, quiet spot.

Enforce Vacations

Kirsten Judd, CEO of the Professional Renewal Center in Lawrence, Kansas, found that most burnt-out patients who came to the center had one thing in common: They never took vacations. Big breaks in the action, truly pulling your boat out of the water, we term vacations. Strangely, many organizations treat vacations as an unwanted cost. While Spain and France mandate that employers give 30 days of vacation per year, and the UK mandates 20, the United States has no mandatory vacation time.11 The United States lags both in mandatory and in voluntary vacation days. About 50 percent of Americans will not take a real vacation this year.12 In 2007, an estimated 51 million American employees will demure from using all of their vacation days. In effect, they will return almost 438 million days to their employers. Some organizations buy back vacation time as a matter of policy. Evidently, vacations are for wimps, so individuals miss out on the chance to recharge, reorient, and even rethink.

Some organizations lead the way in changing our thinking about vacations. California-based Rand Corporation awards employees who use all their vacation days a 5 percent bonus. Motek, a software firm, offers a set of luggage and $1,000 to any employee taking off three consecutive weeks. PricewaterhouseCoopers created three extra paid holidays by shutting its offices between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. Furthermore, the firm notifies a supervisor when employees near the forfeit date for use-it-or-lose it vacation days.13

In this tough environment, we've imported military imagery to drive people to scale the cliffs and run over the next ridge on the business battlefield. But many organizations have overlooked an important feature of military life—R & R. (And part of the agony of Iraq is the conscious violation of this principle as well.) The military traditionally has been very conscious of pacing and burnout. They push people to the limits (and beyond), but then give them time off. After a stint on the front, a soldier gets a furlough or a desk job. But in business, you are more than likely sent to another front, demanding more peak performance.

Professional athletes peak for seasons and take respites from their grueling regimens. Professional managers need to do so as well. You need to give yourself sufficient time to get completely away from your work and immersed in something else, so you can come back to the task refreshed. Do you have any hobbies? If not, this might be a sign that you are completely immersed in your work. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a small step from immersion to drowning, so beware. As the example of our CIO shows, it may appear crazy to take a vacation when you have so much work to do, but, in reality, it could be even crazier not to.

In this connected age, you also have to decide where to draw the line on technology when you are on vacation. If you keep reading e-mail, you might not actually have a vacation—you'll just have taken your office with you. You might decide to do some limited work. For example, some managers will read e-mails but not open attachments, which helps limit the amount of work you do but avoids returning to thousands of unread messages or missing responding to a real crisis.

Some of the relentless pace of e-mail is because people don't use their assistants or filtering effectively. Some managers have their assistants handle phone calls, faxes, letters, and every other form of communication but keep the e-mail completely open. Assistants should screen and filter e-mail to keep only the important things coming to you.

Avoid the Perils of the Crazy Brave and Phony Tough

A crazy environment often brings out the craziness in people. During the Watergate scandal, Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop once characterized the recklessness and swaggering, John Wayne-style bravado of those involved as "crazy brave and phony tough." These two stances can make turbulent environments more dangerous for one and all.

The "crazy brave" are thrill seekers in rivers and organizations who enter turbulent environments and can do some extraordinary things at times. But they ultimately crash and burn—and do a lot of damage to people and organizations around them. Throughout his career, General George Armstrong Custer took extraordinary risks personally and with his command. His fearlessness helped him rise to become the second youngest general in the history of the U.S. Army. At Gettysburg and again near Appomattox, for example, he successfully hurled his greatly outnumbered forces at Lee's army. But a decade later, his fearlessness became recklessness at the Little Big Horn. He raced ahead of other troops in the expedition and ignored reports and caution from his own scouts. He could have waited for a far greater force to arrive, as planned. Instead, he led his men forward into his disastrous "last stand." Crazy brave, they went flying over the falls.

Soccer star Zinedine Zidane was kept out of the first two matches of the World Club playoffs in 2002 by a thigh injury. He probably should have stayed out. Instead, he made the crazy brave move of coming back in the third game. He was not the same player. France lost in the first round without even scoring a goal. He didn't do them any favor by coming back. Bravely overcoming challenges is one thing. Endangering yourself and others by being crazy brave or phony tough is another.

Similarly, in business, you have the "crazy brave" Enron executives who took their entire organization over the waterfalls as they pushed the limits of running the business. Many organizations have high-performing managers whose personal recklessness threatens their own careers and perhaps the organization as a whole. A turbulent environment provides encouragement for this craziness for the "big play," so you need to watch out for this tendency in yourself and in others.

In addition to the crazy brave, a perhaps less obvious and more insidious problem is the "phony tough." These are the people who brag that they work 18 hours a day and have done it for five years without taking breaks. They push themselves to exhaustion, far beyond the point of optimal or even decent performance. The phony tough will start to make mistakes, mistakes that can seriously affect the future of the entire organization. And these phony tough, with their increasingly empty big talk, stand just one double dare away from being crazy brave.

Skilled explorers and paddlers know that their work is to manage the inevitable risks, not seek them out unnecessarily. While a whitewater environment provides inevitable excitement, it requires careful planning, sharp reflexes, and true courage, rather than a swaggering machismo or desire for thrills. As Clint Eastwood's Mr. Dunn in Million Dollar Baby would say, "Tough is not enough."

Losing It in the Thirteenth Round

Boxer Billy Conn was tough enough. On June 18, 1941, he entered the ring to face Joe Louis, reigning heavyweight champion of the world. Conn knew it would be a tough fight. Louis outweighed Conn by at least 35 pounds and was legendary in his ability to hit hard and to finish off his opponents. Conn had chosen to fight "up" in weight partly because Louis had run out of heavyweights to fight (having beaten them all) and partly because Conn had a chance, however slim, to outbox Joe Louis. Conn had proven himself a tough and skillful boxer. If Conn could avoid Louis's power, then possibly, just possibly, Conn could pull the upset of upsets and win the bout, the title, and a place in boxing history by outpointing Louis.

Through 12 rounds, Billy Conn did just that; he outboxed the great Joe Louis. He even buckled the champ's knees several times and probably came within a hair of knocking Louis down in the twelfth round. Then, in round 13, Billy Conn stopped boxing and started slugging. He went toe to toe with Joe Louis. Conn's corner vociferously entreated him to return to boxing, to the careful accumulation of points, but Conn wanted more than a victory; he wanted a knock-out. He got one. Joe Louis knocked Billy Conn into a near fetal position on the canvas. In a post-fight interview, a reporter asked Conn why he had changed tactics in the thirteenth round, to which Conn replied, "What's the sense of being Irish if you can't be thick?"

Decades later, Conn and Louis participated in a panel of heavyweight fighters. Conn jabbed at Louis saying, "I could have been champ." Louis counterpunched, "You were...for 12 rounds." Billy Conn was more than tough enough to win. Billy Conn was more than smart enough (witness his smart investment of his boxing earnings and comfortable lifestyle). Billy Conn went outside himself—outside what he was best at—just when he needed to stay within himself. By "being thick," he went crazy brave.

If not craziness or toughness, then what does it take to succeed in this environment? The factors that will lead to success are, on the surface, far more mundane: the right skills, the right equipment, and the right mindset. The ocean-liner organizations that took us across great patches of open water have already broken apart, and we have launched the lifeboats of more nimble organizational units without the grand ballrooms and corner offices.

The environment has certainly grown crazier, but this doesn't mean you need to become phony tough or crazy brave. You need to find a way to navigate through the turbulence. You need the flexibility and responsiveness designed for true whitewater. This environment can be exhausting and unforgiving. You need to control your pace and balance courage with humility.

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