Archive for June, 2015

A Life Boat in the Sea of Uncertainty

life boat for astronautsWork is never perfect, family life is never perfect and neither is the interaction between them.  Regardless of your expectations or control strategies, things go as they go.  That’s just what they do.

We have far less control than we think.  In the pure domain of physics the equations govern predictively – perturb the system with a known input in a controlled way and the output is predictable.  When the process is followed, the experimental results repeat, and that’s the acid test.  From a control standpoint this is as good as it gets. But even this level of control is more limited than it appears.

Physical laws have bounded applicability – change the inputs a little and the equation may not apply in the same way, if at all. Same goes for the environment. What at the surface looks controllable and predictable, may not be.  When the inputs change, all bets are off – the experimental results from one test condition may not be predictive in another, even for the simplest systems, In the cold, unemotional world of physical principles, prediction requires judgement, even in lab conditions.

The domains of business and life are nothing like controlled lab conditions.  And they’re and not governed by physical laws.  These domains are a collection of complex people systems which are governed by emotional laws.  Where physics systems delivers predictable outputs for known inputs, people systems do not.  Scenario 1. Your group’s best performer is overworked, tired, and hasn’t exercised in four weeks.  With no warning you ask them to take on an urgent and important task for the CEO.  Scenario 2. Your group’s best performer has a reasonable workload (and even a little discretionary time), is well rested and maintains a regular exercise schedule, and you ask for the same deliverable in the same way.  The inputs are the same (the urgent request for the CEO), the outputs are far different.

At the level of the individual – the building block level – people systems are complex and adaptive,  The first time you ask a person to do a task, their response is unpredictable.  The next day, when you ask them to do a different task, they adapt their response based on yesterday’s request-response interaction, which results in a thicker layer of unpredictability.  Like pushing on a bag of water, their response is squishy and it’s difficult to capture the nuance of the interaction.  And it’s worse because it takes a while for them to dampen the reactionary waves within them.

One person interacts with another and groups react to other groups.  Push on them and there’s really no telling how things will go.  One cylo competes with another for shared resources and complexity is further confounded.  The culture of a customer smashes against your standard operating procedures and the seismic pressure changes the already unpredictable transfer functions of both companies.  And what about the customer that’s also your competitor?  And what about the big customer you both share?  Can you really predict how things will go? Do you really have control?

What does all this complexity, ambiguity, unpredictability and general lack of control mean when you’re trying to build a culture of accountability?  If people are accountable for executing well, that’s fine.  But if they’re held accountable for the results of those actions, they will fail and your culture of accountability will turn into a culture of avoiding responsibility and finding another place to work.

People know uncertainty is always part of the equation, and they know it results in unpredictability.  And when you demand predictability in a system that’s uncertain by it’s nature, as a  leader you lose credibility and trust.

As we swim together in the storm of complexity, trust is the life boat.  Trust brings people together and makes it easier to row in the same direction.  And after a hard day of mistakenly rowing in the wrong direction, trust helps everyone get back in the boat the next day and pull hard in the new direction you point them.

Image credit – NASA

Out of Context

out of context“It’s a fact.” is a powerful statement.  It’s far stronger than a simple description of what happened.  It doesn’t stop at describing a sequence of events that occurred in the past, rather it tacks on an implication of what to think about those events.  When “it’s a fact” there’s objective evidence to justify one way of thinking over another.  No one can deny what happened, no one can deny there’s only one way to see things and no one can deny there’s only one way to think.  When it’s a fact, it’s indisputable.

Facts aren’t indisputable, they’re contextual.  Even when an event happens right in front of two people, they don’t see it the same way.  There are actually two events that occurred – one for each viewer.  Two viewers, two viewing angles, two contexts, two facts.  Right at the birth of the event there are multiple interpretations of what happened.  Everyone has their own indisputable fact, and then, as time passes, the indisputables diverge.

On their own there’s no problem with multiple diverging paths of indisputable facts.  The problem arises when we use indisputable facts of the past to predict the future.  Cause and effect are not transferrable from one context to another, even if based on indisputable facts.  The physics of the past (in the true sense of physics) are the same as the physics of today, but the emotional, political, organizational and cultural physics are different.   And these differences make for different contexts.   When the governing dynamics of the past are assumed to be applicable today, it’s easy to assume the indisputable facts of today are the same as yesterday.  Our static view of the world is the underlying problem, and it’s an invisible problem.

We don’t naturally question if the context is different.  Mostly, we assume contexts are the same and mostly we’re blind to those assumptions.  What if we went the other way and assumed contexts are always different?  What would it feel like to live in a culture that always questions the context around the facts?  Maybe it would be healthy to justify why the learning from one situation applies to another.

As the pace of change accelerates, it’s more likely today’s context is different and yesterday’s no longer applies.  Whether we want to or not, we’ll have to get better at letting go of indisputable facts.  Instead of assuming things are the same, it’s time to look for what’s different.

Image credit — Joris Leermakers

Don’t worry about the words, worry about the work.

no need to argueDoing anything for the first time is difficult.  It goes with the territory.  Instead of seeing the associated anxiety as unwanted and unpleasant, maybe you can use it as an indicator of importance.  In that way, if you don’t feel anxious you know you’re doing what you’ve done before.

Innovation, as a word, has been over used (and misused).   Some have used the word to repackage the same old thing and make it fresh again, but more commonly people doing good work attach the word innovation to their work when it’s not.  Just because you improved something doesn’t mean it’s innovation.  This is the confusion made by the lean and Six Sigma movements – continuous improvement is not innovation.  The trouble with saying that out loud is people feel the distinction diminishes the importance of continuous improvement.  Continuous improvement is no less important than innovation, and no more.  You need them both – like shoes and socks.  But problems arise when continuous improvement is done in the name of innovation and innovation is done at the expense of continuous improvement – in both cases it’s shoes, no socks.

Coming up with an acid test for innovation is challenging.  Innovation is a know-it-when-you-see-it thing that’s difficult to describe in clear language.  It’s situational, contextual and there’s no prescription.   [One big failure mode with innovation is copying someone else’s best practice.  With innovation, cutting and pasting one company’s recipe into another company’s context does not work.] But prescriptions and recipes aside, it can be important to know when it’s innovation and when it isn’t.

If the work creates the foundation that secures your company’s growth goals, don’t worry about what to call it, just do it.  If that work doesn’t require something radically new and different, all-the-better.  But you likely set growth goals that were achievable regardless of the work you did.  But still, there’s no need to get hung up on the label you attach to the work.  If the work helps you sell to customers you could not sell to before, call it what you will, but do more of it.  If the work creates a whole new market, what you call it does not matter.  Just hurry up and do it again.

If your CEO is worried about the long term survivability of your company, don’t fuss over labelling your work with the right word, do something different.  If you have to lower your price to compete, don’t assign another name to the work, do different work.  If your new product is the same as your old product, don’t argue if it’s the result of continuous improvement or discontinuous improvement.  Just do something different next time.

Labelling your work with the right word is not the most important thing.  It’s far more important to ask yourself – Five years from now, if the company is offering a similar product to a similar set of customers, what will it be like to work at the company?  Said another way, arguing about who is doing innovation and who is not gets in the way of doing the work needed to keep the company solvent.

If the work scares you, that’s a good indication it’s meaningful.  And meaningful is good.  If it scares you because it may not work, you’re definitely trying something new.  And that’s good.  But it’s even better if the work scares you because it just might come to be.  If that’s the case, your body recognizes the work could dismantle a foundational element of your business – it either invalidates your business model or displaces a fundamental technology.   Regardless of the specifics, anxiety is a good surrogate for importance.

In some cases, it can be important what you call the work.  But far more important than getting the name right is doing the right work.  If you want to argue about something, argue if the work is meaningful.  And once a decision is reached, act accordingly.  And if you want to have a debate, debate the importance of the work, then do the important work as fast as you can.

Do the important work at the expense of arguing about the words.

It’s time to make a difference.

like dominosIf on the first day on your new job your stomach is all twisted up with anxiety and you’re second guessing yourself because you think you took a job that is too big for you, congratulations.  You got it right.  The right job is supposed to feel that way.  If on your first day you’re totally comfortable because you’ve done it all before and you know how it will go, you took the job for the money.   And that’s a terrible reason to take a job.

You got the job because someone who knew what it would take to get it done believed you were the right one to do just that.  This wasn’t charity.  There was something in it for them.  They needed the job done and they wanted a pro.  And they chose you.   The fact their stomach isn’t in knots says nothing about their stomach and everything about their belief in you.  And the knots in your stomach?  That ‘s likely a combination of immense desire to do a good job and an on-the-low-side belief in yourself.

If we’re not stretching we’re not learning, and if we’re not learning we’re not living.   So why the nerves?  Why the self doubt?  Why don’t we believe in ourselves?  When we look inside, we see ourselves in the moment  – in the now, as we are.  And sometimes when we look inside there are only re-run stories of our younger selves.  It’s difficult to see our future selves, to see our own growth trajectory from the inside.   It’s far easier to see a growth trajectory from the outside.  And that’s what the hiring team sees – our future selves – and that’s why they hire.

This growth-stretch, anxiety-doubt seesaw is not unique to new jobs.  It’s applicable right down the line – from temporary assignments, big projects and big tasks down to small tasks with tight deliverables.   If you haven’t done it before, it’s natural to question your capability.  But if you trust the person offering the job, it should be natural to trust their belief in you.

When you sit in your new chair for the first time and you feel queasy, that’s not a sign of incompetence it’s a sign of significance.   And it’s a sign you have an opportunity to make a difference.  Believe in the person that hired you, but more importantly, believe in yourself.  And go make a difference.

Image credit – Thomas Angermann

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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