In Defense of Ignorance: Not Waiting on Certainty’s Permission

Earlier today while driving I came upon an intersection in a forest preserve. I had two options: continue straight to the parking lot or turn left down a scenic one-way road. I was almost certain the scenic road to the left was a public drive. However, I will admit, to my shame, “almost certain” was not sufficient for me. I spent a few minutes searching online to be absolutely certain before turning.

While this is a perfectly legitimate use of the near-infinite knowledge at my fingertips (thanks Internet!), I am bothered to think that even on a casual Sunday drive I was waiting on certainty’s permission before exploring.

There is goodness in access to knowledge, but I would suggest that many of our decision-making habits that rely on immediate access to knowledge might not be entirely healthy.

In the example of the left turn, I didn’t really face a really important question: What was the cost of being wrong (mild embarrassment) and what did I pay to be certain?

I’m convinced it’s not just me who has sought the persuasiveness of certainty’s permission.

I see this particularly in business circles when there is a lot of waiting for “enough” knowledge to have absolute certainty. Not only is “enough” knowledge almost never available, by the time “enough” knowledge is compiled, it’s either expired or ubiquitous.

It does matters that you have knowledge to make uncertain decisions. It also matters what knowledge you collect. You have a finite attention span, and indiscriminately taking in information has an attention cost that rarely gets noticed. (e.g., the migration patterns of the swans in your office’s pond might not be the deciding factor for how you choose your relocation strategy).  Knowing the right area to focus is much more valuable than having a perfect vision of the facts.

I don’t have a recipe for knowing when “enough” is enough. I think it does take time and art to know when to act when knowledge is imperfect. I also know, regardless of the size of the decision, you can’t wait for certainty’s permission because you will end up waiting a lifetime.

The Trouble with Meetings

The Trouble with Meetings

An open secret in the corporate world is that meetings are a necessary evil that replicate rapidly and consume time greedily.

Consider how so many meetings conclude with a thoughtful consensus: there ought to be more meetings about these things. Chances are that no one is really clear on what the things are, but by the end of the next meeting we will have another meeting to figure that out.

This is why I am convinced the single most important aspect of facilitation is bringing forth the responsibility of today in order to stop its escape into the ethereal ‘next meeting’ and replicating endlessly.

Below are some common multiplying meetings and tactics to stop their multiplication before it gets out of control.

 

 

Brainstorm Sessions –

People love brainstorming, because they get to be cool and creative without the consequences. Nobody wants to be the bummer that ruins the ‘creative vibe’ with structure and reality. (Also called rap sessions, discovery, kickin’ it, and getting everyone’s thoughts)

How to Stop Multiplication: Get really clear on the intended outcome and remind people annoyingly in the first 10 minutes (are we here to solve a problem, design a logo, map consequences of a solution, etc.,?). The best way to end the churn of the storms, while making everyone feel involved, is to propose some form of decision criteria or guiding principles. This creates a paradigm that refines any future Brainstorming session and gets people comfortable with progress.

Some people treat these like vacation, and might get annoyed when you treat it like work and be productive. Fun fact: you’re still at work.

Withdrawal Meetings –

Withdrawal meetings are scheduled for someone to feel like activity is occurring, because activity feels a lot like progress. That activity can be addicting for action-oriented people that have trouble understanding how to make progress on complex or delayed work.

How to Stop Multipication: If this is your meeting, don’t schedule it unless you need to. If you are being compelled to attend, focus the conversation on actions completed, actions outstanding, and barriers to completing those actions. If there is no discussion over two meetings, consider moving to written communication or a 15 minute read out. Usually people scheduling like this tend to have trouble understanding what outcome their work is targeting, it is worth refreshing with them if they continually go back to using.

Side Note: If you’re having a meeting to have a meeting, then you’re not doing work. You’re just having a get together with people with whom you have no intention of socializing. Which is a really weird way to spend your time.

The Weekly, Hour-Long 15-Minute Touchbase –

Very similar to the previous case. This meeting had a purpose, but there isn’t nearly enough substance to justify the length of the meeting. Instead of multiplying in number, this one has grown in length. This type of meeting demonstrates an interesting principle, the land grab for time deflates the value of the time. 

How to Stop Multiplication: If this is your meeting, cut the time to only what you need and create an agenda that arrives at the necessary outcomes (not the topics of interest). If this is someone else’s meeting, help the organizer understand the impact of inflated time. If the team doesn’t need to discuss topics, advocate replacing the status meeting with a status report.

If all else fails, only attend the first 15 minutes and train the group to push their priorities for you forward. You need to make strategic investments with your time.

Prioritization Renovation –

When the larger team gets together to calibrate on what the yearly goals are for this week.  These are tough. While it is incredibly important to be sure you are focused on the right things and adapting as you make changes, you can’t constantly overhaul your long term priorities or progress will never get made.

How to Stop Multiplication: Be disciplined about the types of priorities and goals you have. If you are discussing changes to high-priority long term goals frequently you either have poorly chosen your goals or you have a poor governance system. Neither are flattering, but both need solving beyond tactically dodging meetings. For a quick way to address an overactive governance bureaucracy, I suggest highlighting types of priorities and reminding everyone what needs the constant review of the system and what it exists to enforce.

Cult of the Obvious

Cult of the Obvious

I think we’ve all had moments when an ‘obvious’ idea is unreasonable, but inexplicably supported by others.

 “Obviously, we should create an engagement committee to handle the day to day for the financial governance committee. Engagement is a key driver of our financial results.”

“Good point Drake, I’d hate to be someone who doesn’t support engagement or committees”

Ideas can be so imbued with ‘obviousness’ that they elicit an almost religious reaction. There are days I’m convinced I’m the only one not performing the sacred rites of St. Ad Oculos.

“Yes brother analyst, crowdsource is our innovation leverage. Agile cloud engagement is the one true platform. Our Executive has all the answers, we must follow his wisdom. In the name of consistency, ship it”

That would explain the hooded cloaks and candles I got at new employee orientation.

We all have ways of justifying the rationality of our choices. Obviousness is usually justified by history, herd-thinking, and leader mythology.

“That’s how they did it last time. Now we have a good reason to do it that way.” 

“I’d hate to be the fool who can’t understand agile cloud enragement like the rest of us.”

“Our leader wants more agile cloud engagement. She has secret knowledge of the one true platform only a chosen few can understand.”

Mercifully, the answer to “am I the only one who sees how stupid this idea is?” is usually no. People who are baffled by the ‘obvious’ ideas begin to form pockets of sanity where they can join forces.

“Do you have any openings on your team? I was told I need to ship more agile cloud engagement.”

Sometimes these pockets of sanity become an escape. This escapism can disconnect you from reality and over time it may start to create a new kind of ‘obvious.’

“Obviously, committees should never be used. They should dissolve the financial governance committee. Do you not trust your people to spend money well?”

“Obviously, two years ago they made a bad decision and every decision they make will be terrible for decades.”

So, how do you know when your ‘pocket of sanity’ has become a cult of its own? Here are some signs:

  • You’re always agreeing on every decision
  • Your ‘pocket of sanity’ has been the same for the past year
  • Your ‘pocket of sanity’ is only in one department
  • You haven’t ever thought that the other way may have something right about it
  • Your definition of sanity uses biz-phrases (e.g., “we’re the real agile cloud”)

Give the obvious it’s day in the sun, but let it stand on nothing but it’s own merit.

Subtitles

One of the challenges with being a business practitioner and a philosopher is that your imagination sometimes takes over during meetings. The other day I was in a meeting with executives who were discussing a very complex problem. I started to notice a disparity between what everyone was saying and what they were communicating.

Because one can only listen to so much corporate-speak, I started imagining subtitles to match the meaning underneath the words. Here’s a couple of the gems I found:

“I think it’s really important and we should be thinking about this.” (I’m not going to put my reputation out there)

“That’s above my pay grade” (I recuse myself from decision-making responsibility. Let’s have our bosses fight it out?)

“What do you think?” (our CEO agrees, do you disagree?)

“A lot of other people have thought about this.” (I needed to tell you that you aren’t that special. Also, I didn’t really listen to what you just said and I’d rather not discuss it.)

“That’s the right direction.” (When you figure it out I’d love to participate)

“This other team might be the right team to help you” (I’m not going to help)

“But what is our MVP?” (I don’t think we should build that)

“This piece is separate from that piece” (I don’t care if this is interdependent, I don’t want to do that work) 

“How will we balance the near and long term?” (Can you find me an easy answer?)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That question needs to be answered soon)

“What about lawsuits?” (I’m not sure I understand the discussion, I’d rather talk about something really tangible or nothing at all)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That’s a really tactical question, and it isn’t important.)

 

Hidden Disagreements

Hidden Disagreements

Language in all it’s abundant complexity offers multitudinous opportunities for misunderstanding. We’ve all been in meetings or conversations where it suddenly becomes apparent that people’s understanding and use of a phrase dramatically differs from our own in a meaningful way.

“How are the new engines for these bicycles?”
“Great!”
“When can we stick them to the frame? The glue is ready.”
“Wait, you mean engine stickers? I was designing a motorcycle”

Where there was the perception of understanding, a hidden disagreement has been discovered.

It isn’t always ignorance, sometimes it’s just a complex idea combined with complex perspectives and many possible interpretations. They usually show up if we discuss enough.

 

 

Don’t worry about it. Here are the best ways to act when you identify hidden disagreements:

 

Tell Someone Else- Decide the other person’s understanding isn’t important right now and the underlying disagreement isn’t as important to you. This usually requires a pretty bold statement after the meeting like: “I just knew they weren’t going to get past that misunderstanding.”

Force Clarity in the Moment- Get the same definition and perspective. Lock the door and bar the windows. If the other party is unwilling to come to agreement, they’ve disqualified themselves from having a voice. “Let’s hash this out at a time that’s really inconvenient for you”

Cut Others Out- They just didn’t get it. Remember it isn’t worth it if you might have to compromise on your position. “No, why would you think Greg would stick with us after the first week?”

Claim ‘Fault’ to Your Credit- Tell them this was on you, because you didn’t explain things well enough. People especially like to hear that it may have been their lesser intellect that caused the misunderstanding. Be sure to humbly suggest that you listen to them the next time around, because that way you’ll be able to think for the both of you. “My bad Susan, I should have thought for both of us.”

Swap It Like a Pro- Decide you liked their interpretation better. Now be the loudest advocate for that version. Don’t announce or acknowledge the change or trouble yourself with an explanation for the shift. This goes really well with a few others in the room so that you can explain to them how you didn’t change your opinion at all. “That’s what I’ve been saying about less revenue. We need LESS less revenue.”

Piledrive Them- Bury them in explanations. This is a pretty good move when you’re in a tight spot especially when you’ve realized your perspective isn’t a really solid position. Pile driving tends to stun the listener as they try to keep up with the syllable barrage you’ve salvoed. Be careful, crafty people will Swap It after a solid piledriver.

 

 

The Demand of the Norm

The Demand of the Norm

In business there is an effect similar to gravity. A business’s history and culture acquires a mass of its own over time. That mass perpetuates the values and norms of the business. In large organizations the mass of its history becomes a monolith by many names “what we’ve always done,” “the right thing,” “what we learned last time,””we decided,” etc.,. Here we call it the Norm. The Norm defends compliance, it draws us in, comforts us, and offers us safety from personal responsibility.

Here are 3 styles of leading within an organization with a powerful Norm, I recommend using all three at different times:

Assimilate- Comply, acknowledge the good and live with the bad. The power of such an organization is in its consistency. The system is far less punishing for compliant members than objecting ones. Absurd duties may need to be accepted and a great deal of mental effort will be expended to avoid offending the Norm. This approach takes advantage of the strength of ongoing currents within the monolith.

Subvert- Live within the system, but do not accept the values it has established. Regularly take the time to challenge the beliefs of the organization in closed-door meetings and side conversations. Be careful, this approach more often ends up being an exercise in gossip and bitter complaints than being an effective program for change.

Break- Invest energy to sustain conscious denial of certain values and take steps to remove yourself from the inner workings of the organization. This move not only requires significant effort, it also paradoxically needs the most acceptance from the organization. The subversive and the assimilated have the luxury of not being seen, but those who break with the Norm must live in view of its judgement.

 

Clap for Me (v.2)

There’s nothing wrong about recognizing hard work and celebrating success. Teams that withhold praise are hard to work with. However, I often feel that there is something disingenuous about leader-led mandatory cheerleading.

I can think of a few explanations for why leaders mandate cheerleading for coworkers:

  1.  You think your team is gullible and you want to pay them with pats on the back and applause from their peers.
  2. You think your team is emotionally needy.
  3. You don’t know what success is, so you reward completion

First Example: A team has executed a really successful action plan and presents their findings to their leader. Their leader asks the team to clap for themselves and then get back to work.

For 1: You need to get real. An encouraging atmosphere is great, but group applause doesn’t last. What’s worse, employees usually know what you are doing and act to that effect. You run the risk of reinforcing externality and fame-seeking, and diluting success with simplicity. A team focused on externality tries to predict and satisfy leader whims, not meet outcomes.

For 2: Even if your team is needy, their desire for cheerleading doesn’t make it any less demeaning when you comply. Reality being reality, you might have to cheer for a demoralized, needy team. While you can’t take personal responsibility for their maturity, you can craft a culture that reinforces or challenges their dependence on cheering. 

At it’s heart, the first two reasons of corporate cheerleading seem to echo belief in the inferiority of the masses. That belief might manifest itself cynically (see 1.), pseudo-empathetically (see 2.), or finally in complicit ignorance where one carries on the traditions of the past.

For 3: Take this example: You’ve just had a tenured employee present on a long-standing problem their unit is facing, concluding with their recommendation to solve it by keeping present course, afterwards the executive of the department stands up and asks the department to applaud the presenter.

If you’re here and you know you’re doing this. Stop it. Talk to your peers and leaders about what goals are worth celebrating if you need perspective. You might decide that the effort to present is worth celebrating, but don’t let your team confuse cheerleading for presentation skills for your recognition of successes.