Tag Archives | Questions

Three Business Terms I Promise Not to Use

Call me a heretic, especially considering my line of work, but I’m about to share three terms that make my eyes roll back in my head:

Mission Critical

Critical Success Factors

Key Performance Indicators (and its evil acronym, “KPIs”)

Don’t get me wrong. The ideas behind these terms are valuable. But they are overused, and unfortunately (too often) used to impress people and protect sacred cows.

Mission Critical

What does it mean? It’s pretty self-explanatory: Something is critical to the success of your mission. Ah, but one should never use a word in its own definition. According to Wikipedia, it is “any factor of a system (equipment, process, procedure, software, etc.) whose failure will result in the failure of business operations.” The label lends an immediate air of importance to whatever it has been applied.

And, in my experience, it is too frequently used just to make something sound important; it is applied to things without any justification; and too often (in my humble opinion) organizations focus on projects and objectives that have been deemed Mission Critical without either articulating that Mission or involving their people with the Mission.

I recently was Followed on Twitter by an impressive leadership consultant and coach. I followed him back, but almost revoked it when I saw “mission-critical” in his web-page’s About section. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt when I saw that his most recent blog post was about passion.

Critical Success Factors

Again, that’s a pretty self-explanatory term: Critical Success Factors are things (people, processes, accomplishments, etc.,) that are critical to the success of your Mission Critical thing. Or, as Wikipedia says, “Critical success factors are those few things that must go well to ensure success for a manager or an organization.”

Again, this is an important label. Pronouncing something a Critical Success Factor says that without this person, process, accomplishment, etc., our seriously important thing is Doomed to Failure.

The real danger is not the snooze-factor that comes from over-use of this term. The real danger is its dialogue-stopping, investigation-stopping power. This Critical Success Factor is too important to question. We must protect it because it is, well, critical.

Key Performance Indicators

This is a relatively innocuous term that, like the others, simply means what it says on the surface: A Key Performance Indicator is a measurement (item on a report) that tells us how we’re doing. Not only in general but, because it’s a Key Performance Indicator, it must be about one of our Mission Critical, Critical Success Factors.

Wikipedia differentiates between Critical Success Factors and Key Performance Indicators in this way: “Critical success factors are elements that are vital for a strategy to be successful” whereas “KPIs, on the other hand, are measures that quantify management objectives and enable the measurement of strategic performance.”

Here, too, there is a danger that comes with the aura of Super-Importance conferred by the term itself. This measurement is a Key Performance Indicator and so we must give special attention to collecting the data around it and make decisions based upon what it tells us. Too often, though, other important signposts are overlooked.

This term, like the first two, is too often used by managers and consultants alike to confer importance on not only the items under discussion but on themselves as well.

For example, I was once telling a colleague about a process I was planning to help a client identify the skills that had the biggest impact on team members’ ability to do their jobs and which of those skills should be focused on for training or coaching.

“Oh, you mean the KPI’s,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, you should say that, then,” she said. “Otherwise your clients won’t respect you.”


Common language can be valuable, and…

Having common language can be very valuable. I encourage everyone, however, to be curious the next time you hear or read one of these terms, and ask a lot of questions:

What IS our mission?

Are we all on the same page with that?

How do we know?

Is this “mission critical” process, achievement, or (fill in the blank) really vital to that mission?

How do we know?

What are the things (people, processes, attitudes, perceptions, accomplishments, etc.) that are vital to that mission?

Are they measurable? How?

How will we define success?

What have we overlooked?

These are just some examples. There are many more that can (and should) be asked, and the asking, the curiosity, is the important part.

Here is an exercise for you

The next time you hear the term “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” or “Key Performance Indicator,” see if you can find another way to say it. Then ask whether that term applies to the thing in question.

Powerful Language

The terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” and “Key Performance Indicator” seem like powerful language, but they are not. At least, not the power I choose.

I choose powerful language that makes people sit up and say, “Yeah!” “I can’t wait to find out!” “I want to know! So we can build something important!”

Do the terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” and “Key Performance Indicator” do that for you?

If I’m talking with a client who manages an auto-body shop, or a salon, or a law firm, do you think he or she wants me to impress them with fancy words and jargon? No, I suspect not. So far they have responded enthusiastically to plain English.

My Promise

I promise never to use the terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor,” or “Key Performance Indicator.” If I do, you have my permission snore very loudly. And then drive me crazy with questions.

What do you think? Please leave a comment!

Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Captains Curious: Living the Questions

Welcome to Captains Curious, a weekly series of guest posts on the subject of Curiosity. The newest member of the Captains Curious is Tara Joyce! To learn about the series and the other Captains Curious, please click here.

To be open and asking questions is often frowned upon

We are encouraged to see the world in black and white, as an either/or proposition with a right or wrong answer, and we are expected to chose accordingly.

We are told that those who “know” things are experts, and are here to help us make the right choices. We are taught that experts are those we can trust when we have problems. And we are led to believe that, by asserting our own “knowing,” we can create evidence of our own professionalism and abilities – and be experts, too.

To not know and admit it, to be open and asking questions is often frowned upon. We are made to feel ashamed for “not knowing.” We are made to feel that we need to be certain of things — that we need to have the answers before the questions have been asked. This “knowing” is seen as an accomplishment and proof of our abilities.

Many of us build our careers around this false belief, that if we live as the expert, we will know what’s best. We fool ourselves into believing that we already have the answers, despite the fact that we do not yet know the questions that need to be asked.

We hold on to answers to questions that have not been asked, and this causes us to live in fear of our own, and others’, curiosity and wonder.

Living in Questioning

What I wonder is, what’s so bad about “not knowing?” What makes me less professional or able if I don’t have your answers? I believe my curiosity and wonder, my need to question, is my greatest gift. It allows me to think beyond the answers spoon fed by others in their attempt to assert their “knowing.” It allows me to see that there is never a right answer, only an answer that works best for me.

My openness to “not knowing” gives me permission to live in questioning. And as experts busy themselves trying to be seen as right, I, curious about the world and all that I do not know, am busy trying to see everything.

Curiosity and wonder live and thrive in the exploration of Why? Great solutions are found in the Why? Through the use of questioning, I give permission to myself, and my clients, to brush off the chains created by “knowing.” Through questioning, I dig deep to uncover the real reason behind why something “must be done this way” and help myself, and others, to move past assertions of “how things are” to find the solutions that feel true to us.

Living in Creative Tension

In Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, Senge states,

“The gap between vision and current reality is a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision. We call this gap creative tension.”

Living in creative tension is living in curiosity. Our curious Self sees, in the gap of “not knowing,” a safe place to problem-solve, to dream and to focus on living our questions.

As someone full of wonder, and as someone who helps others use curiosity to grow their business, I see the “grey area” of life, outside the “black” and “white” world, as my home. In creative tension I feel safe, as this is where I am free to be a beginner and open my eyes, heart and mind to the authentic answers within myself, and within my clients.

Your own creative tension, your own place of living the questions, is the place where curiosity lives and is the place most ripe with the solutions you need. Living without fear of “not knowing,” and ignoring those who “know” without questioning, we create our greatest possibility to close our gap between what is and what could be.

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I, Tara Joyce, can be found exploring business, design, consciousness, communication and culture on my blog, Rise of the Innerpreneur or as @ElasticMind on Twitter. I can also be found working with business owners to close the gap between their business vision and their business reality through the use of design, which, of course, involves a lot of questioning!

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Would you like to submit a guest post on the subject of Curiosity? Send an email to susan {at} susanTblake {dot} com with the subject line: Captains Curious.

Captains Curious: Curiosity Is the Ultimate Room Freshener

Welcome to Captains Curious, a weekly series of guest posts on the subject of Curiosity. The newest member of the Captains Curious is Karen Caterson! To learn about the other Captains Curious, please click here.

Curiosity is a window-opener

Open the Windows!

Have you ever walked into a room that’s been closed up for a significant length of time? One that has a musty, stuffy smell?

If you have, you probably opened the windows wide – immediately.

Why? Because an open window brings in freshness – fresh air, if we’re talking about a room – and fresh thinking, if we’re talking about the “window” of curiosity.

For example…

Even before I knew she would be hosting a Curiosity Series I learned that Susan is a Curiosity Advocate. I happened to mention to her (in a “Whatcha been doing?” note) that I was nervous about an upcoming call with my son.

Manchild (one of the nicknames I have for my son) had written me a short email mentioning a purchase he and a friend were considering – a yacht!

They’d found a yacht online. Yacht. Online. What the WHAT?

My son spent the past year interning at a Quaker youth hostel in DC – he’s not independently wealthy (or anywhere close to) – and he can’t swim. You might imagine that I had a lot of questions for him (and you’d be right)!

Should I mention that he said, “It needs lots of work” – and he’s a musician, not a handyman? Yep, lots of questions!

I asked to hear more about it and Manchild suggested a Skype call rather than email – so we set up a mutually agreeable time.

When I wrote Susan I was experiencing motherly concerns (out the wazoo), and worrying about how to achieve some kind of parenting balance between listening and advising (and also – mostly – worrying about how much “advising” I’d be likely to do while in a Holy #&%*! state of mind).

That’s where Susan (and her Curiosity Championing) came in. In response to my saying that I was a bit anxious, Susan wrote: “…I have no advice. But in my experience, just asking appropriate questions can be very helpful.”

Susan’s not-advice was like having someone open a window for me: It brought in fresh thinking and helped me create space for curiosity.

Create space for curiosity…

Questions! I had tons of them! (Did I mention that before?) I set my fears and my own agenda aside (the first step there was noticing that I had fears and an agenda) for the Skype visit with my son, and…

…firmly grounded – with curiosity as my foundationwe had a great talk! I was able to get excited with him, honor his plans and ideas and convey my concerns – which, frankly, weren’t all that concernish once I allowed myself to listen to his plans.

That left us time to concentrate on the really important stuff – like why in the world Manchild and friend were even considering renaming a yacht?!? (There’s a world of superstitious stories around renaming a boat.) It turns out they had that covered, too – they’d researched and found a “proper” ritual for the renaming.

…and curiosity brings in fresh thinking, discussion and Wonder

Curiosity is a window-opener: It brings in fresh thinking, discussion and wonder – much better than the stuffy, musty stuff of fears and preconceived agendas!

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Karen Caterson – aka Square-Peg Karen – is a recovering psychotherapist & Mindful Nonconformity Advocate and offers encouragement, humor and resources to fellow Square-Pegs (i.e. Mindful Nonconformists) at Square-Peg Reflections (http://squarepegpeople.typepad.com/). Follow her on Twitter @SquarePegKaren.

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Would you like to submit a guest post on the subject of Curiosity? Send an email to susan {at} susanTblake {dot} com with the subject line: Captains Curious.

Doppelganger or Kindred Spirit? An Invitation

Once upon a time when this website was still just A Twinkle In My Eye, I started researching possible domain names and I set up a variety of Google Alerts so I could find out what was happening in the interworld. One of the alerts I set up was on my own name – “Susan Blake.” And I discovered that there are a lot of Susan Blakes out there – but only one Susan T. Blake, and that’s me. Hence the name of this site.

I kept the Google Alerts, and I stay up to date on what the other Susan Blakes are up to – Susan Blake the novelist, Susan Blake the jeweler and Susan Blake the veterinarian are by far in the lead as far as internet activity. But they are by no means alone.

Well, a new one showed up yesterday that actually kind of freaked me out. Google alerted me to a pair of articles in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the Santa Cruz Patch about a park interpreter and docent at Big Basin State Park (which is practically in my backyard) named – you guessed it – Susan Blake.

This is freaky for several reasons. First, I have loved Big Basin State Park since the early 80’s when my late husband and I discovered it by accident on one of our adventures. It’s one of those hidden pockets in the Bay Area that offers peace and tranquility in an otherwise densely populated area. Second, I have long had a fantasy of running away and becoming a Park Ranger. (When I went to Big Sur in 2009 after getting laid off I joked with my friends and fellow-travelers, Nina and Leslie, about giving up my job search and becoming a Park Ranger. Nina subsequently gave me the coffee table book from Ken Burns’ “The National Parks”  for my 50th birthday. Yay Nina!) So it was a kick reading the article about my doppelganger at Big Basin. “Ha ha,” I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if my friends thought this was me.”

And then I got to the end of the article in the Patch, and I got goosebumps. The other Susan Blake was quoted as saying, “Last Thursday I took a school group of 4th graders out and at the end asked the group what their favorite part of the hike was. One boy answered, ‘I loved that I could ask all the questions I wanted,’ and I thought, ‘Wow that was my favorite part too’.”

Damn. We don’t just share our name.

I get goosebumps every time I read it, in fact.

I forwarded the Google Alert to my sister, whose first response was, “You’ve always said you wanted to run away and become a park ranger… have you been moonlighting?  Do we have to start calling you “Mister Ranger Sir”?” Ha ha.

Then she sent a second reply, which included that quote from the article in the Patch. “She even sounds like you.  Are you SURE you’re not moonlighting?”

Yes, I’m sure, although I’m beginning to wonder if I’m projecting a part of myself out into the world where it walks and talks and has a life of its own. Goosebumps. But this doppelganger is a good omen, not a harbinger of bad luck.

It’s really neat when I find evidence of other people who are following the same call as I – the call to question, the call to be curious, the call to wonder. I found another kindred spirit the other day, Jeffrey Davis at http://trackingwonder.com. In the Source of Ideas section on his “Tracking Wonder” page, Jeffrey says, “Wonder aids idea inception because it opens the mind with surprise. It cracks rigid preconceptions and stiff assumptions wide open. Anyone who wants to make a real difference in this changing world needs wonder on the team.”

Yes! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I will be writing more about wonder and curiosity and questions in the coming days, and highlighting specific ways to apply them. Are you curious? I hope you will join me on Team Wonder.

Meanwhile, I think it’s time to visit Big Basin again…

How Curiosity Can Help You Save the World

The other morning I was watching Quest (a local science show on KQED), and one of the stories was about researchers who study the sun. And my mind went off on a tangent about astronomy, which has always fascinated me, and about the researchers – why are they curious about the sun and not about something else?

Which got me thinking about curiosity. This is a theme that has been popping up a lot for me lately.

I am curious about curiosity. The more I think about curiosity, the more I realize it is connected to many things:


Although we humans have much in common, we are also very different from one another. What is it that enables us to learn from those from whom we are different, rather than demonize them?



Creativity and innovation are buzzwords of this era, and they are touted as the crucial factors in the strength of enterprises and economies. But what drives them?


Powerful Questions

The ability to ask questions is an important one. Not just any old questions, but good questions. Powerful questions. What is it that makes the difference between powerful questions and questions of defiance?



Compassion, the ability to feel someone else’s pain, is more correctly defined as the ability to feel something with someone else. (Com + passion = with + feel.) We can instinctively feel with those with whom we share similarities, but we are different from most others as well. How can we feel with people from whom we are different? What makes that possible?


So, Yes. Curiosity can help you – and me – save the world. I wonder… What role does curiosity play in your life? Do you consider yourself to be curious? To what extent is curiosity part of the environment in which you work? Is it allowed and encouraged? Or is it discouraged and stifled?

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