The danger of easy paths

easy pathBeing a quick study can get in the way of learning what you need to understand. Midway through elementary school I went on my first field trip to the Museum of Natural History in Milwaukee. The enduring memory from that trip was my first encounter with a buffet line in the museum cafeteria. My tray was loaded by the end of the line and I was mildly ill for the remainder of the day. This was merely the first in a long line of lessons about the difference between theory and practice; lessons that I continue to trip over half a century later. There was the 4th-grade teacher who sat me in the back of the classroom and challenged me to see how much of the World Book Encyclopedia I could finish by year’s end whenever my other work was done. By the time I got to college, I had been nudged by so many teachers and other supporters in the direction of thinking over other kinds of doing that I was on track to graduate in three years.

As that second year in college was drawing to an end, I realized that I had no idea what I wanted to do when graduation arrived. My parents didn’t flinch when I concluded that I wanted to take the full four years to finish school; I wasn’t insightful enough to grasp the financial hit I was imposing on them. Regardless, they bought me an extra year to work out an answer about a next step.

There’s a running debate whether competence or passion should drive your career. The passion wing cheers that heart should drive your choices; find your passion and the career will take care of itself. More recently, the counter-narrative that expertise precedes engagement has regained ground. This is the realm of the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice. Better that you should become good at something and trust competence to evolve into commitment.

We now have two false dichotomies—theory vs. practice and passion vs. competence. There are others we could add to the list. The world isn’t organized into these binary choices. It’s necessarily messy and complex. This is not a popular position; we all want to believe advice that begins with “all you need to do is…” Everyone is offering proven systems or guaranteed methodologies. Instead, we should seek to accept complexity without letting it paralyze us. We need to remember what H.L. Mencken said “there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Today, in particular, we live in a world full of bright, shiny, objects promising to address their narrow perspective on a narrow conception of the problem. We need to become adept at framing opportunities to incorporate messiness. That’s a process that benefits from traveling companions walking the same paths.

There’s always a bigger picture

Earth from spaceIt’s a given in writing circles that there are only a small number of basic plots; the miracle of human storytelling is how many unique tales have been wrought from that basic ore.

Storytelling has become a lens in better understanding the organizations that we belong to and interact with. I think we’ve construed story too narrowly in organizations. Oddly enough, we’ve done so by ignoring the social dimensions of story.

Our first images of story conjure Homer declaiming to the audience gathered by the fire. But we quickly enlisted others to bring stories to fuller life and drama arrived. Through the usual concatenation of circumstance, fortuitous moments, and basic temperament I found my way into that world. A degree of shyness and curiosity about how things—as opposed to people—worked led to a shadow career behind the scenes.

I was fortunate that my early history involved producing original works within a tradition rich environment. What that meant was that you started without a script or even a title but opening night was fixed. Some of those involved had been through the experience the year before and the year before that. Others of us had no clue. All of us knew that the institution had been pulling off the equivalent trick since 1891. There are things you can accomplish before the script is finished. On the other hand, it’s hard to build a set before you’ve designed it and you can’t design it without an inkling of what the show will be about.

From the outside, this looks like chaos. Parts of it are. Traditions and history assure you that the curtain will go up on opening night. Tradition also assures that you will lose sleep along the way. I couldn’t see it at the time but I was learning how innovation and organization worked. More specifically, I was learning about innovation as collaborative story-making and about the interplay linking technology constraints and opportunities with artistic or strategic vision.

Viewed from the audience, performance is about actors, their lines, and their interactions. Sets, lights, and costumes may be visible, may attract some fleeting attention, yet fade into the background. The massive efforts going on behind the scenes to create the context within which the performance plays out only become apparent when something malfunctions.

This creative fulcrum, where content and context are brought together, is the most interesting place to stand. Those who can learn to look in both directions—to play with both content and context—have more degrees of innovation freedom than those who limit their gaze. Learning to look both ways, however, is a very hard thing to do.

What makes it hard is that the tribes who come together to create a shared creative outcome come from very different traditions and mindsets. Pursuing excellence within any one aspect of production means settling for mediocrity in others. Working across tribes demands an ability to speak multiple languages with competence at the expense of eloquence in a single tongue.

The particular conversational bridge that draws my attention today is the contribution that changing technology can offer. Technology is a powerful creative lever . It makes things possible that weren’t before. In a stage production, for example, an automated lighting system can slowly change the look of the set over the course of many minutes, simulating the transition from dawn to full daylight. That is an artistic effect that wasn’t possible when the change depended on human operators.

But that creative effect might never be contemplated unless the artists staging and directing the performance learn about and understand what the technology has made possible. And that requires an effective conversation between artist and technologist.

It requires translators but also requires something more difficult. This level of creative collaboration demands a shared respect for all who contribute. Healthy, tradition rich institutions are better prepared to cope with new innovation opportunities than weaker organizations. Resistance to change is a marker of organizational weakness; infatuation with new technology for new technology’s sake is a marker of low trust in institutional tradition.

Managing the conversation across the performance and technology tribes depends on helping the participants see the larger picture that all are seeking to bring into existence.

Learning to think for innovation

Management Thinker Peter Drucker

“Innovation and change make inordinate time demands on the executive. All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and to do as one has always done.”
Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive

Once again, Peter Drucker offers insights for today even though this was originally written in 1967. Taken at face value it suggests that innovation in today’s organizations is a fool’s quest. A few people—Cal Newport, for example, in “Deep Work”—have begun to pick up on this, but they are distinctly in the minority. They can be nearly impossible to notice or hear in the cacophony of productivity advice, inboxes littered with offers to write your best-selling book in 90 days, and workshops to design your business model in a weekend. We have always been enamored with speed and live in an environment that raises speed to a religion. Thinking hard has rarely been popular.

There are some counterexamples. Bill Gates was famous for his “Think Weeks” where he withdrew from his day to day responsibilities to look beyond the immediate. The question for mere mortals is how to create the time and space needed to do the kind of thinking needed for innovation. Recognizing the challenge is, doubtless, the first step. Few of us have the luxury or clout of a Bill Gates to dedicate entire weeks for deep thought; we can all recognize that some kinds of thinking and reflection require bigger chunks of time and carve out those chunks where they can be found.

Another thing worth doing is to get better at stringing those chunks together in more effective ways. I’ve taken a run at this before, for example,

Distraction is the enemy of reflection. What Drucker is pointing out is that the underlying time demands for innovative thought flow from the demands of clearing your mind of the immediate and building the internal mental models necessary for deep work. I think of it as learning to meditate in a particular direction. We know a good bit about step one from the lessons of meditation. But meditation tends to stop there. The second step is to point your thinking in a particular direction and provide useful supplies for the journey. There is a process and discipline to thinking about innovation that is learnable. It is a skill that can be improved with deliberate practice.

Sweating details

Bottom Line Program CoverDuring my second year in business school, I co-produced the annual student variety show. My co-producer and I ended up dipping into our own shallow wallets to cover budget overruns. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time the show produced an artistic success and a financial failure. That was a decidedly un-business school result. Although we named the show “A Bottom Line” in homage to “A Chorus Line,” we lost sight of our bottom line in pursuit of our vision.

This was probably the harshest lesson I took away from theater as laboratory. Art and economics do not coexist without effort. Balancing them demands vision and craft. I can’t prove that pursuing one over the other leads to failure, but success always seems to correlate with making the partnership effective.

I wrestle with why this simple observation should seem so hard to grasp. Perhaps, those who cling to either pole—art or economics—secretly want to have a ready excuse for mediocrity. How much easier it is to blame the “suits” for paying more attention to the budget than to the audience. Or to blame the director for wasting that budget on sets that no one cared about.

The tension between art and economics is no new thing. The lesson I learned over time was the more nuanced relation between vision and detail. Any new product or service depends on a tapestry of interlocking details that each contribute to the overall experience. Too often, it is the interweaving that gets forgotten. As organizations strive to fit new ideas and processes into the existing design, crucial details get sanded off or forgotten in the gaps between jurisdictions. In last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, the presenters on stage announced the wrong winner for Best Picture. The error traced back to a momentary lapse offstage in managing the envelopes because there were two sets of envelopes to deal with the detail of not being certain where the presenters would enter from. A huge gaffe in front of the world traces back to a design detail that missed one possible failure mode.

There’s a collection of useful lessons to be gleaned from a detailed post-mortem of this particular mix up. The broader lesson is that no one looked at how little changes in the details of a long-running process put the broad vision at risk. The lesson from my theater experience is that there is always a level of chaos playing out offstage that is essential to maintaining the illusion of control on stage. If you don’t recognize this and factor it into your designs and your management practices, then the offstage chaos is going to spill into view.

Bridging the techie divide

Pocket ProtectorI struggle with how to respond to smart people who preface their questions with “I’m not a techie…” In my smartass days—which I hope are largely behind me—I would have said something snide or rolled my eyes or possibly both. Since I’ve been married to one of these people for the last 34 years, suppressing that immediate response and looking deeper is a wiser strategy.

We all get that technology suffuses our days. It is a central element of our environment. But we are not as blessed as Marshall McLuhan’s fish. McLuhan once quipped that “I don’t know who discovered water but it wasn’t a fish.” We can’t simply swim in our technology environment and remain oblivious. Our technology environment intrudes. We see something and it feels threatening. That sense of dread limits our ability to navigate smoothly and comfortably.

For those who can see more clearly, it can be hard to parse the feelings of those who cannot see as clearly. To complicate matters further, knowledge of and comfort with the technological environment doesn’t eliminate the sense of dread—it merely relocates it.

There is a pair of questions to be explored to discover where we might go.

  • What is it about the approach to technical challenges of non-techies that contributes to their distress and struggles?
  • What is it that “techies” do differently that allows them to navigate a dynamic technology environment with comfort?

I think I’ve noticed two things about how smart non-techies approach technology. First, in an odd way, they are too procedural. They seek a precise, step-by-step, recipe for how to accomplish their goal; they are focused on the immediate task at hand. For them the task is what matters and they wish only to know enough technology to execute their task. While this would seem to be a sound strategy, its weakness is that it ignores context; in particular the technological context that exists side-by-side with the business context. The task at hand appears straightforward to the non-techie because they have embedded that task in its business and organizational context. Thinking that the technical task can be reduced to a single recipe assumes that any technology exists on its own; that it has no context.

This is easier to see when you notice that non-techies appear to approach each application or technology as if it were unique. It’s as though each application were a new alien arrival from another universe. By contrast, those who are technologically comfortable view each new application as one new specific creature drawn from a coherent ecosystem. I somethings think of this as seeing “behind the screens.” For those more comfortable in this ecosystem, we have a coherent model of what is going on behind the surface of the screens that dominate our environment.

Techies have learned to see that there are two contexts in play. One for the task at hand and one for the technology ecosystem. What makes this troubling is that acquiring these contexts takes time. You develop a sense for how individual items work within an ecosystem by building a model out of exposure to a long series of case examples. This ties into the notion of digital literacy but isn’t quite the same. That’s a line of thought to be developed over time. My hypothesis is that the path forward starts with helping the non-techie grasp that there is a second context worth being aware of.

Building two bridges between technology and practice

Parallel bridgesI got hooked on the theater in high school. The gateway was a stint as props manager for a local community theater production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” At the same time, I was a science and math geek in class. I was immersed in the Two Cultures debate long before I even knew that it existed. As much from being shy as for any positive reason, I spent my time in the wings and backstage where I learned about all of the technology it took to make the art happen on stage.

Because theater is live, techies and actors intermingle. There’s rivalry, but it is friendly; the need to work together is obvious. In my college theater group, the tech crew had an award called the “golden crescent wrench.” It was awarded to the cast member who did the most to support the crew. I don’t recall that there was an equivalent award from the cast to the crew, but you know how actors are.

You might think that the divide between techies and performers is narrower in the world of organizations; the interdependencies are just as critical to success. But we see that isn’t the case. Where a theatrical production has a performance to focus everyone on their joint contributions, there is no equivalent in a business. Performance is a continuing process, not a discrete event. Continuing processes push organizations in the direction of increasing specialization, organizational barriers, and silos.

Fewer and fewer people are positioned to view and understand the whole and the multiple magics required to deliver that whole. Technology is something that happens deep in the engine rooms, not nearby in the wings. There is narrow communication and certainly no fraternization between the different specialists.

This has been a long standing problem in organizations. It becomes more pressing as technology becomes more and more visible; as it becomes more of the performance. Our theater analogy suggests that there are at least two problems to address. Techies must learn to appreciate performance and performers must develop some sense for what art becomes possible with each new technological advance.

Dilbert notwithstanding, getting techies to appreciate performance may be the simpler task. A look back to theaters may help. Every theater has a history and that history includes the technological assumptions that were made at its inception. Sometimes those assumptions can be baffling; the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago, for example, has a loading dock that is fourteen feet off the ground and requires a forklift to load in sets for a show. Old theaters accrete new capabilities in layers as technology evolves and budgets ebb and flow. Wishing that a particular constraint didn’t exist is a waste of time; history sets limits on what is easy, hard, and impossible. None of those constraints matter, however, unless they interfere with a particular artistic goal. Understanding the performance goals is the central step in taking advantage of the technological possible.

Developing a meaningful grasp of the technological possible appears to be the more challenging task. Arthur C. Clarke captured this challenge in his third law; “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If all technology looks like magic to a performer, how can they make sensible choices among options? The answer lies in the practice of stage magicians. They start with the illusion they wish to create and a deep understanding of human psychology. They add a good helping of knowing how technology has been used in the past to create particular effects. Then they proceed to experiment with what might be possible next.

What this becomes is a very grounded approach to innovation. You start with where you are. This includes a sense for what has gone before. You imagine where you hope to take your audience/customers. Only then do you explore what can be done with new technology to fulfill your vision. This exploration does require that performers develop a sense for technology, its history, and its edges. That might require some fraternization with the technologists in the organization.

High velocity conversations and communications breakdowns

conversationI was a smartass for the longest time. I’m an eldest child who was a rule follower and well suited to classrooms. Classrooms were arenas where victory went to the quick. The tortoise and the hare was not a fable about slow and steady wins the race; it was a cautionary tale to keep moving. I ended up in—and sought out—environments where brains were honored and rewarded. Most of the rewards went to those who were quick witted and glib. Many of the natural corrective counterbalances were missing.

This led to frequent episodes of “engaging mouth before engaging brain.” I still experience lapses. I’m certain there are still people I annoy. I hope there are fewer that I hurt. It was a long time before I learned that conversation was a group activity, not a solo. The smartass in me would happily point out that this is self-evident from the Latin roots of the word.

I have a friend who is a little bit older and a great deal wiser than I am. One of the things that makes our relationship fun is something he labels “high velocity conversations;” He’s a jazz musician and I think these conversations must feel something like good improvisation. Instead of plodding from A to B to C and on, we leap from A to G to T and know that each of us is keeping pace. When it works, it’s an energizing experience.

What occurs to me is that it isn’t simply the actual velocity that makes these conversations work. It’s also matching velocities. That requires hooking your ears into the circuit as well. And, more often than I might like, it requires routing conversations through your heart as well.

Two things make this harder in today’s organizational environments. First, the default velocity of conversation in organizations has been increasing. “TL;DR” is a rude response to one-sided conversations arriving faster than you can handle. But how to be civil and slow the onslaught of incoming messages remains a riddle. For most of us, the response seems to be grim determination and less sleep.

Second, new conversational channels interfere with both conversational rhythms and emotional content. I can’t monitor and manage an online class discussion with the same fluency I can bring to a physical classroom. Slipping in and out of conversations at a cocktail party or on a coffee break is a skill honed through decades of practical experience. Picking up the thread in an ongoing discussion forum is a different skill and one that lacks easy models to emulate.

The interaction between these two makes it harder to navigate the communications landscape. If I lack the signals and cues available in a face to face conversation, I am pushed toward strategies that aggravate the problems I’m looking to avoid. For example, if my audience is going to read my message later rather than listen to me now, I will be tempted to anticipate and build in all the context and background that might be relevant rather than sort that out on the fly. I’m increasing the risk of provoking a TL;DR response—which is a perfect example of the problem. Can I assume that my reader can translate “TL;DR” into “Too Long; Didn’t Read”? Guess right and I move the conversation along; guess wrong and I irritate someone I may be hoping to persuade.

Our emerging communications environment demands more empathy and sensitivity to our conversational partners at the same time as it strips us of the tools we’ve learned to depend on to make that communication work.

Culture is marked and shared in the middle

Christmas 2011

The photo is from Christmas 2011. Our younger son, Derek, had recently completed training as a U.S. Marine and naturally acquired his first tattoo. As a surprise, my wife and I also got tattoos and the big reveal came that Christmas morning. (His older brother vowed that he wouldn’t join us unless and until the Chicago Cubs won the World Series—we’re still waiting to see that tattoo.) Having a tattoo is an occasional source of street cred when my students learn about it. It is also something we chose to do to mark a particular shared moment.

Markers of belonging are a central element of culture. Visible markers like tattoos or uniforms have a certain attraction, but it is the invisible ones that hold power; especially in organizations.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a phrase that pops up in organizational development circles with some regularity. More often than not it is attributed to Peter Drucker, although that appears to be unlikely. Regardless, culture is the way things work in an organization that won’t be found in employee handbooks or process maps. With a strong culture, everyone will do the right thing in the unanticipated moment. Put another way, culture defines what constitutes the right thing in the face of the new; accept it, reject it, play with it, deny it.

How does culture get reinforced and passed along if it can’t be found in the handbooks or the rules?

Today Derek is a sergeant responsible for the development of younger marines.  If you study organizations you learn about sergeants. Having one in the family levels up those lessons. Sergeants are the primary caretakers of organizational health and culture. This isn’t something they talk or think about explicitly. It is the essence of the role and plays out in the way they carry themselves and in the stories that they share.

I was struck by the conversations we had at the end of his basic training. They were filled with stories of the history and traditions of the Corps. Huge amounts of time and effort were spent on why and how to be a Marine. It was designed into the experience. As Derek went off from training into the Fleet, these stories and experiences continued to be dispensed, primarily by sergeants.

We see this aspect of culture in the military and in the foreign places we travel. What is less easy to discern is that culture is not something that simply exists and is laid down during the distant origins of a place or an institution. Culture can happen organically in the ebb and flow of activity and the stories that sergeants and their equivalents opt to share. What institutions like the Marine Corps reveal is that strong cultures can be built and transmitted by design. They need to be anchored in the actual activity and experience of the organization; but we can choose which experiences are deemed worthy of emulating. As leaders we decide which markers to pass along.

Leading from the middle by getting out of the way

Angels and SheepI’ve been involved with my church’s annual Christmas Pageant for twenty two years. Early on, I helped our youth minister wrangle the hordes of young kids. We lost her to cancer twenty years ago and I was asked to step up and take on the whole show the following year. I now own the production and there is no escape. I get an email each November from our director of youth ministries asking if I will do it again. The request is a polite fiction; there is only one possible answer.

Somewhere in the last fifteen years, I found a better way to lead by getting out of the way. I asked a couple of our high school students to help me out and work with the younger kids on individual scenes. I was simply trying to cope but something more interesting happened. One of my “assistants” would find me and ask “Mr. McGee, we think the shepherds should fall down when the angels appear; what do you think?” I quickly learned that the best answer was always “Yes.”

Now the pattern is set. I’ve always got more than enough high schoolers ready to help. The younger kids listen better to the high schoolers than they ever would to me. And my job is to say yes. The biggest question we ever deal with is who will play the Baby Jesus this year; last year’s Mary played the Baby Jesus about a dozen years back.

This microcosm has become a laboratory that shapes my approach to leadership. “It’s complicated” is an appropriate response to most organizational issues that surface in today’s environment. Yet, you still must act. None of us have the capacity to keep it all in our heads; the broad vision, the players, the sequence of events that must be orchestrated. It’s why organizations exist; to do more than we can as individuals.

The fundamental task of leadership is to create the environment where everyone can contribute. What’s surprising and difficult is how much of that depends on your ability to get out of the way. There are lots of ways to get in the way. Getting out of the way turns out to be more difficult. Get too far out of the way and you create a vacuum. Simply articulating a grand vision leaves too much space for others to get in each others way.

Where is that middle space that shapes without dictating? My claim is that it revolves around distributing responsibility and listening carefully as everyone works to interpret the vision and make it real. The listening is where you learn how well the vision is understood. You say “yes” far more often than not because the questions are coming from those who are better positioned to grasp how the vision, the action, and the environment are interacting.

Slowing down to navigate fuzzy boundaries

aerial view of shorelineI’ve been thinking about the space between strategy and tactics for a long time. It seemed at one time to be a very sharp and well-defined boundary. Some folks worked on strategy, others executed a collection of tactics to make the strategy happen. Sharp boundaries make for simple academic disciplines, neat organizational boundaries, and simplistic management practices.

The real world doesn’t respect sharp boundaries. Straight lines and sharp edges are human creations; they rarely appear in the natural world. That should have been a clue that we picked up on a lot earlier. Machiavelli understood this. A handful of the smartest thinkers did too.

But the forces that want to simplify are strong. Simple stories fit on PowerPoint slides. Simple models fit into spreadsheets.

The world always insists on complexity, but for the longest time it was possible to look past the complexity. The most interesting threads of the last decades are those that force us to reexamine the belief that there is a knife-sharp edge where I end and you begin. These threads are visible at all level of inspection. One of the hot topics in human biology today is the role of the microbiome; the line between me and not-me is muddied with intestinal bacteria and internal cell materials that are essential to life but are not part of our DNA. At the other extreme, there is the impact of human activity on the global climate. It takes a conscious effort of will to cling to simple explanations.

Simple explanations do support the temporary preservation of the status quo. “It’s complicated” or “it depends” are never popular conversational gambits. But our anxieties are triggered and amplified as reality continues to insist on being messy and complicated.

These anxieties are a clue that we can pay attention to.

I was teaching my class on organizational development this morning. We were looking at a collection of readings that talked about and around the challenges that individual knowledge workers and leaders must struggle with in today’s world. What is the role of emotional intelligence inside organizations? Why is resilience becoming more important even as efforts to pursue efficiency and optimization erode that very resilience? When does skill interfere with learning?
What struck me as I was trying to orchestrate the discussion was that the common thread connecting the diagnoses and the advice across these readings was speed. Speed drove anxiety. Figuring out ways to slow things down enough to make sense of them was that unifying thread.

For all that we celebrate speed, it separates us. We know this in the realm of personal relationships; they strengthen when calm displaces the frenetic. That chance in speed is subjective; to an outside observer that pace might still look rapid. On the inside, the principals have found methods and practices to move in sync. To use a phrase from Donella Meadows, the late thinker on dynamic systems, they have “learned to dance with the system.”