When Are You Serious?

A colleague sent me an email this morning. She had read Agile and Lean Program Management, and especially liked the section called “Potentially Useful Practices.” She told me she thought of them as “pup”s and was going to use that idea for a talk she was developing. She talked about cute puppies—which one was a beagle, which was a bulldog or a German shepherd. Oh, I laughed out loud. I can’t wait to see her presentation.

That got me thinking about when we are serious and when we let our sense of humor out to play.

I’m serious about outcomes. I’m serious when I practice a new skill. I’m not as serious when I deliver training or presentations. That’s because I did the hard work in advance. I’m serious about my preparation, including thinking about funny stories so people identify with the idea. People need and appreciate some humor to go with their learning.

Back in my developer days, I was much more serious about how I worked. I hadn’t found my rhythm or a way to deliver on a regular basis. That led to cycles of delivery/black-hole-ness/delivery/black-hole-ness, etc. If I couldn’t depend on my delivery, how could anyone else? Work was quite serious for me, then.

As I learned how to work in smaller chunks, I was able to see my progress and become a little less serious. I still cared “too much.

When I became a project manager, I learned an important lesson: as a leader, people took their cues from me. If I was serious about the outcome, they would be, too. If I was serious about the work, they would be, too. And, if I used my sense of humor in my work, they would, also.

I took a different approach than many other project managers (or managers). I asked for rumors. I asked for bad news. I would say, “Okay everyone, we’re going to sigh. Ready? 1, 2, 3, Big Sigh.” I waited for everyone to sigh with me. We often laughed after we sighed. Then, I could ask, “Okay, now what can we do about this problem?”

I treated the problem seriously, but not how we dealt with the problem.

When I see risks I don’t understand, I tend to be more serious. When I am pretty sure I can see the risks, I can let my (wacko) sense of humor fly.

I also learned that if I asked for risks, I would learn about more of them than I might be able to handle. And, if I didn’t ask about them, something would bite the project, at the worst possible time. That’s Murphy’s Law.

Yes, the world is a serious place.  And, how we have choices about how we treat the problems and risks in our lives. We can see “pups” instead of “Potentially Useful Practices.” Our sense of humor is part of our emotional resilience. (See also the Book Review of Surviving Survival.)

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question of the week: When are you serious?

6 thoughts on “When Are You Serious?

  1. Tom Heisterkamp

    In general, and in general generalizations are untrue, I am deadly serious when I don’t feel safe. That’s the place I don’t want to be. So generaly speaking I am mostly not very serious at work, and want to keep it like this. Great post Johanna!

    1. johanna Post author

      Tom, LOL re the not very serious at work. Yay, you! Yes, safety is a big part of when I might feel the need to be serious. I think that works well with my notion of risks, too. If things are risky, I often do not feel safe. Thanks!

  2. Jim Grey

    I’m always serious! True story: my Kindergarten teacher wrote in my first report card, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious!”

    Day by day I’m more serious in things where I don’t feel fully competent or where I care a lot about the outcome. But when I feel competent, my playful side comes out.

    I feel competent as a people manager, and my direct reports experience me as easygoing and fun. I feel less competent navigating relationships with my peer leaders, and they experience me as serious and a little uptight.

    1. johanna Post author

      Jim, I’ve met you, and you are not always serious :-) I do like that quote from your teacher.

      I think that when we relax about our fears (which includes safety, risks, competence to name just three), we can allow our playful sides out. I wonder what you would have to do to change your peers/managers’ opinions of you. I’m wondering, I don’t have answers.

  3. MarySue

    I am serious when someone questions my credibility or implies that I didn’t do what was requested, even when I know that the requirements changed without letting me know.
    I am most playful in presentations and visualizations. Interestingly enough, where my credibility might be questioned in front of others. Hmmmm…..

    Nice thought-provoking ideas. Thanks.

    1. johanna Post author

      MarySue, oh, yes, I can see that. I might be defensive if people question my credibility. I’ve been both, playful and defensive. I think it depends on the situation.

      Glad you the question made you think.

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