Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tackling the big hairy topic

I'm on an energy high these days, because I've been invited to engage in a lot of important work that I'm passionate about with really great, smart, stimulating, caring people. A young woman I'm serving with asked me how I handle the overload of information that exists for a big topic that impacts society at every level. Here's what I wrote to her:

"What a very, very good question. Yes, of course, we all go into a sense of profound overwhelm, sometimes even frequently. 

Here's what I think and how I handle it.

I remember what Mother Teresa said when asked about all the poverty and ills in the world. She said that she just began with the person in front of her. That's comparable to adages like "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." 

I know that management workshops teach people to prioritize and then go to work, but I sometimes find that I can decrease my sense of inertia and anxiety simply by tackling a few small things that are directly in front of me. It's sort of like clearing a path or trimming the edges before doing the real work that's been assigned. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and refreshes my energy and ability to focus. Then, I can prioritize and be more strategic about the long list of things that I have to do.

Skimming is the only way to tackle the information overload that we face as educated people who utilize Web based resources. I use my judgment about which portions of a document, such as a recent lengthy report on Illiteracy and Innumeracy, to read. A wise female professor of management once said, "Not everything worth doing is worth doing well." Of course, the converse is also true: "Things really worth doing are worth doing well." The trick is for those of us who are perfectionists to know when to stop and move on. I try to project and allocate some range of time for my assignments so that I don't work open-ended, without end.

My purpose in surveying as much online material as I did for our committee, and I didn't list everything I read, was to develop a narrative frame from which to think and talk about our big hairy topic. I've done that in my capacity as co-chair, because I wanted to help our committee members grapple with our big hairy topic with some sense of coherence. One of the problems an entity like a national organization faces is the push and pull of many voices telling us that all their agendas are important. They are right; they're all important to someone. But, not all agendas are priorities when weighed against our limited resources of dollars, people, and time. Thus, a narrative frame becomes essential to help organize and prioritize all those topics. 

An analogy is a jigsaw puzzle, which is not a problem that one solves in a linear fashion. So, too, is tackling something like finding coherence and priorities in a topic as huge as our big hairy one. Am I making sense? A jigsaw puzzle is very frustrating in the beginning, but as the pieces slowly come together, our sense of possibility begins to overtake our sense of frustration, and the puzzle begins to form coherency.

Thank you for inviting me to think out loud with you."

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