Archives for the month of: September, 2013

Process is a term often misunderstood.

Most people in business hear it and imagine Six Sigma black belts running around with visio diagrams, proclaiming process efficiency and such.  While that’s not wrong (for efficiency certainly has its place), process can and should be much more than that.

When I tell people that I’m process-focused, it means that I’m less concerned with the end result than with the how of getting there.  I don’t mean that you should ignore the result completely.  Far from it, in fact – a broken process can consistently yield terrible results.  But a broken process can also produce the desired end-game results.  This is an illusion; one that will be revealed in time, as the results begin to fade.

Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, is constantly espousing the benefits of “the process.”  Even his players talk about the capital-p Process during ESPN interviews.  It’s unlikely that Saban is referring to an advanced process-flow diagram.

Saban is instead referring to the same thing that legendary acting teachers like Constantin Stanislavsky, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Eric Morris refer to: the technique you use on a consistent basis to be better at what you do.  That’s it.  Refining your process in acting is about doing the essential.  Non-actors might have heard of this as “the method.”

What’s essential in acting?  Normally it starts with communicating to your scene partner.  Karen, one of my first acting teachers, used to have us sit facing a partner, and repeat words back and forth with each other.  No inflection changes.  No “acting”, please.

If you modified your partner’s word in any way when you repeated it, Karen would say, “bullsh**”, and then you had to start over.  The process of repeating something said over and over to each other forged a connection to the other person.  It enabled the essential – communicating to another human being.

Only after communicating with someone can an actor develop more of her process: How does the character move?  What does she want?  Why does she want this?  Why does she feel this way, and what in my experience can I use to play the same?  Actors must move through the stages of this process in order to fully develop themselves as performers.  When that’s done, they’re ready to really play a part.

Similarly, Saban’s process at Alabama is about breaking down the complexities of football into building blocks: blocking, tackling, proper foot and hand placement, etc.  Only then would Saban and his staff focus on schemes and strategies.  When everyone has developed their own potential, by following the process, good things happen.

But the outcome of the entire process is, in a way, secondary.  For actors, focusing on winning awards or getting a starring role is the wrong way to approach things. Sure, you might stumble into a plum role, but then what?  How will you ensure that you’ll be successful, and that you’ll enjoy the experience?  By having solid process.

Saban’s process speaks for itself – his football program achieves a level of consistent success that is almost historic in its precedent.  Some might say, “But if he wasn’t winning football games, all his talk of process would be meaningless”.  And this is obviously true.  If he wasn’t winning football games, it would mean that the process was broken!

Fix the process, and focus on that, and the results will take care of themselves.  If they don’t, iterate the process, and try again.

So what, you ask?  What does a post about acting technique and a football coach’s osbession with process have to do with the rest of the world?  Most of us work in “results-oriented” environments, so it’s crucial that we root ourselves in solid process thought in order to be consistently effective.

I created this simple model for a struggling operations team recently, and it helped everyone focus on what could be controlled.  In time, results improved.

  1. What are we dealing with?  What is it, literally?  Do I understand it?  This might be a client request, or a widget.  But before you take action on it, you must know what it is.
  2. What does this mean?  This is trickier, but we should always look for ramifications of what we’re looking at.  For the operations team I helped, we often found widgets that were delayed.  What it meant was that we were in danger of missing client deadlines, and in turn, upsetting those customers.  There is chain of possible events.
  3. What must be done?  Are there set actions I should take?  Maybe it’s a new event and I need someone’s opinion first.  But if you don’t know what to do, find out!  Ask questions, and be humble in your lack of knowledge.
  4. Who else needs to know?  This is especially important in a customer service environment.  Will a client be upset if a widget is going to be 5 minutes late?  What about 25?  What about 3 days?  Who internally should know?  These things must be understood and acted upon.

This simple example of a process-oriented model (What is it, What does it Mean, What must I Do, Who should Know) helped our operations team improve customer satisfaction by 30% in one month.  But again, the outcome came from a solid process.  We didn’t reverse-engineer the process, we started with it.

So choose to be like a great actor, or like the best college football coach today.  Focus on perfecting and enjoying your process, whatever field you’re in, and results will come.

In my last post I wrote about how the Fight or Flight response can limit our potential, as it produces what is sometimes an ineffective mode of behavior.  It’s often more effective to initially Stand Upright in the face of the challenge.  Once assessed, you can decide what response the situation best warrants.

But how do we modify our initial Fight or Flight responses?  I like the following two variations of the same technique, which I’ve derived from my training as a stage and screen actor.

The Fight or Flight response stem from our autonomous nervous system.  This means that it happens naturally, and we cannot stop it completely.  However, once it happens, I’ve found that the best way to exit that primal response is by getting out of the head and into the body.

I call this technique the Rock Stomp.

I once was in a musical with an actor whose personal tendency was to be highly reactive and highly aggressive, and this really showed during her acting.  Unfortunately, Fight wasn’t appropriate for a particular role, for a wispy character who was much more passive and restrained than she, and she struggled to modify that autonomous response.

During challenging moments, she used her body in a particular way, as if  she was about to launch into the face of her scene partners!  So I suggested to her one night that she literally carry rocks in her pockets to reinforce her connection to gravity.

She found that the rocks not only prevented her from flying around (have you tried jumping around with rocks in your pockets? awkward), but that the physical restraint of more weight also helped her feel calm.  She was more grounded, and experienced less of a Fight response.  She was then able to gradually translate that calmness into her needed character actions.

A similar technique also worked for a friend I’ll call Mateo, who came to me with tremendous stage fright.  He had to give a presentation in front of 40 people, and this terrified him – he wanted to run and hide in the corner, which is no small feat for a 6-foot-5-inch man.  He was in full-scale Flight mode.

We didn’t have any rocks available, so we just stomped around an empty room for about 10 minutes like heavy cavemen.  STOMP, STOMP, STOMP!  His breath was fuller, and the people in the room knew he was there.  Stomping can help you feel more solid, more grounded, and more powerful.  Mateo then worked on remembering that feeling of power during his presentation.

I’m not suggesting you always carry a big bag of rocks with you in case of a confrontation, or that you literally stomp around the room during a presentation (in fact, please don’t).  Instead, we need to practice the sensation we want to remember, away from the stimuli prompting Fight or Flight.

So carve out 10 minutes a day over the next week.  Grab some rocks, or some dumbbells, or your kids (just kidding).  Practice standing still with the extra weight.  Feel the heaviness.  Where do you notice the extra weight?  In your feet?  Your shoulders?  Your hands, perhaps?

If you’re stomping, where do you notice the solidity?  Your breath?  Maybe your head feels different.  Mateo said his belly button felt big.  I’m not sure what that means, but it worked for him!

Like all stage techniques, the point is to experience a particular emotional response, and then carry that on stage (or into a board room, or to a presentation).  In this context, remembering the physical sensations we’ve practiced through Rock Stomp, we get out of our instinctive reactions and can then assess the situation.

If you felt the solidity in your hands, focus on your hands when your boss yells at you.  If your Stomp made your feet feel gigantic, try imagining size-25 feet if you feel nervous in front of a group presentation.

First, assess your instinctive Fight or Flight response.  Then practice Rock Stomp 10 minutes a day for a week.  I promise you that the next time you feel like fighting or flying away, you’ll be able to begin remembering the solid, heavy, alert sensation of having Rock Stomped, and you’ll then be able to do what is needed.