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?

1 comment:

Andy Britnell said...

Hi Michelle

No you're not Schizophrenic, just an Insights creative type who has the ability to use two opposing colour energies in conscious use and, by the way, the other two energies in less conscious use.

Which means that you have access to all four energies depending on the context or situation. (Not all at the same time otherwise you would be a quadrophonic schizophrenic)

This is great for you as you have a flexibility of behaviour most of us cannot manage easily. It also means that others might find you challenging to deal with as you can flip from one colour energy to another.

The result is that they may find you match their energy and are in rapport but are then confused as rapport will be broken when you switch to the opposite energy.

Thanks for the links to Ali Stewart's blog - much appreciated.

Best wishes