Friday, May 18, 2012

Small gap, big difference

This week, there was a hubbub on the internet about this talk by Nick Hanauer (multimillionaire venture capitalist), who did a brief TED talk—"Ideas Worth Spreading"—and was dismayed when TED, well, chose not to spread it via its popular web site. In my opinion, the speaker is not engaging and the talk is not very unique, simply not TED quality. However, the rejected speaker took his displeasure to the National Review, which accused TED of deciding that the issue of income inequality was "too hot" to handle. TED claimed that the talk was rejected for being "explicitly partisan," having "unconvincing" arguments, and receiving "mediocre ratings," which is just as inauthentic as the National Review's clearly sensational slant, since the talk is not partisan (both parties are accused), the talk received a standing ovation, and lots of the brief 3-minute TED talks have unconvincing arguments simply due to time constraints. Both sides were a little shady. Both sides have received HUGE exposure, much more than they would have received otherwise. I suppose exposure is what both TED and Hanauer want, ultimately, and it was fun to participate in the online debate, so I guess everybody won.

Where I won especially, though, is following a link embedded in the online battle to a similar, more substantial TED talk by Richard Wilkinson, a noteworthy economic researcher and professor. He presents a variety of data to demonstrate how the larger the economic gap within a developed country, the bigger the negative impact on health, lifespan, and other critical outcomes for the entire society.

I propose that a similar phenomenon occurs within corporations: The more pronounced the hierarchical gap between leadership and employees, the more dysfunctional the organization; small gap, big difference.  

Information Wilkinson cited about the physiological response to stress was particularly interesting:

"Threats to self-esteem or social status in which others can negatively judge your performance…have a very particular [negative, substantially higher] physiological response [than other stressors]…"

Perhaps this relates to our current do-substantially-more-with-substantially-less work environment:

Could fear of being downsized as substantially more is being asked of a smaller workforce be driving up stress at an astounding rate, more than we might expect?

• If sustained stress makes us stupid, what are the implications to business of this high-stress work environment created by continuing economic challenges?

• Does your particular work environment support or defeat productivity and innovation?

• How can we improve the working environment for increased productivity and innovation?

What do you think?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lizards and Linchpins

I recently read the getAbstract summary of Linchpin by Seth Godin.* According to the summary, Godin advises that, for professional success, we must overcome our most basic instincts in our resistance-driving "lizard brain"—the part of our minds that tells us to merely survive through risk-averse rule following—to exercise our “daemon”—a higher brain function that opposes resistance and drives creativity, love, determination, selflessness, and insight. Godin believes that the industry "artists" who exercise their daemons are "linchpins"—go-to people who are indispensable to an organization.

"…if you believe in yourself and your potential for greatness, kindle the creative spark within, embrace risk and seek the good in others, you can become an influential linchpin."

Hmm. Okay. (This feels like it is heading dangerously in the direction of the pseudoscientific law of attraction. Yikes.)

"You can either fit in or stand out. Not both. You are either defending the status quo or challenging it...Organizations will always strive to replace replaceable elements with cheaper substitutes. But generous artists aren't easily replaceable."

Again, okay. But what really plays out? Artists/linchpins may not be easily replaceable because they are rare. But they are not indispensable. Remember the adage:

"The graveyards are full of people the world could not do without."

It may injure a business to dispense of linchpins either by design or by lack of effort to retain them, but the remaining lizards will continue to do what they do best: SURVIVE. So will many businesses.

"Optimistic, successful individuals tune out their lizard brains. They don't take failure personally. They don't think of themselves as losers. They learn from their mistakes and take different approaches. They are strengthened, not weakened, by setbacks…You cannot truly embrace change until you decide that nothing is going to stand in your way. No amount of self-doubt or outside negativity is going to derail you. March ahead fearlessly."

In my experience, many lizards, like linchpins, don't take failure personally, either. They will fly under the radar, rationalize, play politics, game the system, blame others or the world, and a bunch of other possibilities, and generally emerge professionally, psychologically, and emotionally unscathed. Sure, some will be downsized, but if lizard-brain thinking is our natural instinct, it only stands to reason that lizards remain the vast majority in the workforce and in the world (including the executive suite).

Both lizards and linchpins will march ahead in their own ways. I've seen both find wild business success and both do just okay. Possibly, linchpins may feel genuinely happier about their plight and be liked by other people. But, lizards may believe the same about themselves. Either way, it works out on a personal level. Perception is reality.

So, if Godin is trying to say that being a linchpin will make your organization work harder to retain you or bring you greater professional success, I’m a skeptic. There are way too many variables in business to narrow success down to merit. I do not believe that there are robust meritocracies in the very subjective and political corporate world. If he's trying to say that linchpins have a better chance than lizards of leaving something good in the world (appreciated or not), well, that's possible.

Or, is Godin simply saying that you have choices about how you define and achieve personal and professional success, despite what is hard-wired in to your brain? With that, I definitely agree.

What do you think?

• How do you think lizards and linchpins compare in terms of professional success? Business impact? Value to your organization? Recognition and rewards?

• Do we need both types, or would it be best for business to have one type dominate?

• Which of these suits you? What do you do when someone you work with closely is the opposite? What do you do if you are expected to act in opposition to your preference?

• Are these the only two possibilities? Are there others? What about blends?

*Not having read the full book, I admit to the probability that I missed critical points. I’m a fan of Seth Godin, and I’m sure there’s brilliance in his book that couldn’t fit into the summary.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Options, Not Plans

I often say that I feel better when I have a plan. In fact, I just said it a few days ago to my mentor as our next steps for my career exploration started to take shape. I used to say it when my husband's cancer would return — waiting for data and doctor's appointments was much harder than treatment (which was no picnic), because simply having a goal with actions ahead of us was much better than being in decision-making limbo. I've said it in times of re-organizations and reductions in force — when you have enough data to start planning next steps, it's so much better than not having enough information to even consider options to rearrange the work.

Upon deeper reflection, though, it's not really a plan that makes me feel better. It is having reasonable options based on a vision.

There's something about the word "plan" that connotes a step-by-step procedure to me, something relatively fixed, with milestones, commitments, and a fixed endpoint. Webster agrees:

• an often customary method of doing something: procedure
• a detailed formulation of a program of action

It's not that I don't like plans. It's just that objectives I must meet according to a plan don't stress me out. It's just normal stuff. You lay it out and check off the intermediate steps. I don't really think about it, think to report on it, or give it much notice at all because it's so routine. I should, because that seems to be the work most people care about, in my experience. It's the stuff on which my performance rating is based and my value is judged. It's so infinitely measureable: solid process measures, clear milestones, obvious endpoint. The control freak inside each of us is blissful. 

When something requires a vision and options, it's a much bigger deal: big risk, big unknowns, big change, big impact. It's something that requires constant course adjustment, quick response, jumping into the void, trust in my own judgment, faith in others and in the system. Achieving a vision, navigating uncertainty, never being able to see more than a couple of steps ahead is such a rush, though! And, when you get close to the vision, you have really made a difference that counts — BIG value, BIG change.

Trouble is, it's hard to measure your progress along the way, and it can take a long time, so we have a tendency to say "nothing is happening" when, in fact, the reality is just that we don't know how to measure, or we simply become impatient. Or, even if we do wait it out, it takes long enough that it's like the "boiling a frog" metaphor: Major change can happen slowly and stealthily, like when you slowly turn up the heat under a pot of water, a frog in the pot will not notice that he's slowly being cooked. But if you drop the frog into a pot of water that's already boiling, he'll jump out. Dropping the frog into the pot, or measureable, point-in-time, firefighting-style change is what we notice and reward, even when it's not the most important step—or even a step at all—on the way to the vision (which, in this case, is a boiled frog). Slowly boiling the frog, or systematically achieving a vision, is not really noticed or appreciated because it happens gradually, even though it can result in a radical change in state (at least, for the frog).

In my experience, we talk a good game about wanting meaningful results, but, because it takes patience in a faster-than-Moore's-Law-paced corporate world, we don't pursue them. It's easier to chase the tangible and immediate, even if, in the scheme of things, they are not going to help us achieve what we want.

Many in corporate America are buckling under the weight of an over-processed, overloaded, over-everything work environment. The economy is weak, businesses are struggling, and pressure is intense. In response, we're micro-managing the obvious, to pacify our inner control freaks in an out-of-control work world, applying management concepts in increasingly desperate ways. We're adding layer upon layer of process to avoid the slightest deviation...cherry picking rather than delving deeply...making everything lean to the extreme. We're more interested in the bell curve than the people it represents. We're quick to fight fires or dash for the finish line, but slow to learn. We push to zero risk rather than push toward a vision. We don't want any uncertainty anywhere. These aren't bad things necessarily, but they shouldn't be an excuse to avoid more uncertain, more rewarding paths.

By managing out all uncertainty, perhaps we're also managing out options critical to achieving our vision.

Let's re-frame the thinking. Collect enough data to create a vision (per Webster: a thought, concept, or object formed by the imagination; unusual discernment or foresight) and then formulate options (choices, alternatives) that can help achieve it. When I do this, the control freak in me is happy because I am in control — at least, enough control to make decisions as the next few steps unfold. That's enough to make me okay with the remaining uncertainty, and creativity can flow. Plus, uncertainty means I can never get stuck: uncertainty equals options

Have faith in a vision, and back it up with just enough data.

Can you tell I'm a sunshine yellow manager?
Would you believe that I'm equally a cool blue?
Is that leadership schizophrenia?