What Dogs Can Teach Us About Better Work

Each time I visit my sister, I participate in the walking of the dog. The dog is a mix between an Australian Shepherd and a Corgi, and when we leave the house, that dog is EXCITED.

Her ears are up, she’s scanning the environment, she’s picking up everything on the ground to see if it is interesting or useful, and she jumps around from place to place in pure joy. It’s like she’s never seen the world before, and she’s going on an absolute adventure just looking for what she might find.

On the way back, it changes. She somehow knows when we are no longer “outward-bound,” but have turned back and our main destination is the car or the house. Her ears go back beside her head, her noise points straight and slightly towards the ground, and her steps are consistent and driven.

This is also how innovation works, in its simplest form. You start with an objective or a problem. You scan the environment, looking for what you might uncover that may be relevant or useful in achieving that objective. And then once you’ve filtered through the treasures you find along the way, you work diligently and consistently to get to your next checkpoint (or in this case, home, until the next walk).

The first part is adventure time, the last part is complete-the-mission time. It’s diverge, then converge.

We so very rarely do this in our every day lives.

Think about a career or career move. We probably explored a number of majors before starting college. It took us a while to learn what each had to offer. Later in life, we don’t always anticipate needing to do that same search before making a shift. Instead, we go on a mission (identify next move and make it work immediately) before going on the adventure (seeing what’s even possible).  

Now take something as simple as writing a thorough email. Instead of jumping around and getting your thoughts out on paper (the adventure), then rereading and refining so that it’s all aimed at one clear point (the mission), we start it like a mission and go as quickly as possible to get it done. This often results in a finished product that is neither adventure nor mission, making it useless at achieving its original purpose of clearly communicating some piece of information.

Or consider starting a project. How often do you sit down and think “let’s just see where this goes?” That’s not what most of us do. We sit down and think “I have to get this done right now and it has to be a very specific way or there are huge consequences.”

That’s a whole lot of weight to put on yourself right at the beginning – and a great way to shrink your creativity and increase your cortisol

But what if you started the project as an adventure? At some point you need turn around and get it done, but what if the beginning was a bit more “meandering?” What if it was more about where the project took you, instead of where-you-have-to-take-the-project-right-now-or-else.   

This applies across workplaces, too – not just in individuals completing work. We start everything with needing to know the destination right away.

Let’s take a conversation with an employee. A good discussion starts with an adventure. Where are both parties coming from? How are they currently thinking about the topic to be discussed? After scanning the environment, then both parties can converge on the topic at hand. But we start with the mission – the “I-need-to-get-this-point-across-now” and we wonder why what we say doesn’t stick. We didn’t even check to see if they were looking at the same map.

Now let’s look at innovation. Unfortunately, many areas of innovation don’t operate at all like true innovation – teams start with needing a new product now (mission) before scanning to see what is even possible, feasible, relevant, interesting, or useful (adventure).  

Strategy is no different. Good strategy makes choices between a set of options. Finding those options requires a bit of an adventure. This adventure may be going out into the market, talking with employees, or searching for new information. The choices you make can only be as good as the options you have. But so many start with only the numbers (mission) and drive home from there.

We are not meant to be in “mission mode” all the time. What gets results is this cycle of seeing what we can find, turning around and completing the mission, resting, reflecting, and repeating.

Adding the adventure to any of these tasks not only leads to better results – it changes the whole experience.

If it was going to take an hour, let 20 minutes be for exploring and seeing what comes out. You won’t forget to get back to “mission mode.” It’s too ingrained.

We are experiencing record burnout and overwhelm, and a huge part of that can be attributed to the way we approach so many of the tasks we do – big or small.

We have to give ourselves permission to unclench just a little bit, roll our shoulders back, take a deep breath, and give even just a portion of our time to just seeing what we can find.

So the next time you catch yourself driving for results, take a minute to scan. See what else you can pick up or learn along the way – then use that to make you better as you narrow in on your destination.

Read More Articles:

Leadership is Learned Young