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

Mandatory corporate cheerleading tires me. Especially when that experience is an awkward mandatory clap for Drake’s (truly the great everyman of our time) latest powerpoint presentation about our falling revenues.

I can only think of a few explanations for why leaders mandate cheerleading and use it profusely:

  1.  You think your team is gullible and you want to pay them with pats on the back and mandatory applause from their peers.
  2. You think your team is emotionally needy.

For 1: You need to get real. An encouraging atmosphere is great, but performances like group applause and putting your name on a cake don’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. A team focused on externality tries to predict and satisfy leader whims, not goals.

For 2: Even if your team is needy, their desire for cheerleading doesn’t make it any less demeaning when you comply. I’d wager they are a lot more capable of maturing than you are giving them credit. 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, corporate cheerleading arrives from a belief in the inferiority of the masses. Belief in superiority is a  consequence of the ego that subtly develops with many leaders’ careers. It can manifest itself cynically (see 1.), pseudo-empathetically (see 2.), or finally in complicit ignorance where one carries on the traditions of the past.

The Octopus and the Man-0f-War

Looking for a solid decision-making analogy for a team embarking on highly complex work in a fluid, evolving environment?

Why not try an octopus?

Here’s what that might look like

Octopuses have significant amounts of neurons positioned within their limbs. Each leg can process complicated sensory input and begin to interpret external stimuli. With these capabilities an octopus can begin to react a few milliseconds before sensory inputs have reached the central processing center of the brain. While the limbs exhibit the ability to react to momentary changes in the environment, octopuses also have eyes to perceive more distant threats and can migrate to react to shifts in the environment.

It is best not to lean too much on biology for the analogy and suffice it to say: the Octopus model strikes a balance by splitting response to the environment between independent functional groups and a central strategic perspective.

The Man-of-War

Like all good analogies, the Octopus needs a foil to prove that it is the right choice. In this case, let us consider the Portuguese Man-of-War (interestingly, not a jellyfish). A Man-of-War  is a colony of specialized organisms working together to survive. In a world where distributed intelligence and decision-making is seen as the epitome of human evolution (DAOs, crowdsourcing, etc.,) it can be tempting to think of the Man-of-War as the paragon of a collaborative workforce. Each piece does its part in a perfect system without a power dynamic to pollute their interactions.

However, such an arrangement is only amenable in certain conditions. The Man-of-War lacks a function to perceive and respond to broader environmental changes. Without a central perspective the Man-of-War depends on the environment’s good favor to survive.

Here’s the thing, the octopus model isn’t strict in it’s hierarchy because it relies on the limbs for relative autonomy and interaction with the environment. The limb and head functions differ in relation to the perspective they afford. For example, in some cases a limb might need to be sacrificed to save the octopus. What limb could have the perspective to respond in such a way?

In business, a product line may need to be severed when larger threats are imposed on the enterprise. Product lines may not have the perspective to perceive the larger threats or respond in a sufficient capacity. Those product lines need relative autonomy like the Octopus limbs to respond and react, because a central strategic perspective will not have the timely contextual insights that a 1024px-octopus2 may have.

 

Survivor Mindset

The goal of the CBS show Survivor is to Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. With physical, psychological, and political gamesmanship it can make for entertaining television. However, we’ve seen cases where people apply this mindset to their workplace. This introduces us to another of our installment on sicknesses; the survivor mindset.*

The survivor mindset turns wit and political savvy from helping navigate your environment into an obsession with challenging your coworkers. It is ego masquerading as bettering yourself.

Survivors are committed to winning ‘the game’ through side competitions, tricks or tasks to collect ‘immunity’, and outwitting every other person in the office. Survivor syndrome degrades organizational and personal morale through breeding mistrust. The survivor mindset directs energy to:

  • Endurance competitions like who gets the last/longest word at a meeting
  • Shows of strength like where one sees who can push responsibility the furthest from themselves
  • Immunity trials where extraneous tasks and personal favors are used to win over leadership and excuse future poor performance

Be careful that your ambition doesn’t become the kind that drives you to the survivor sickness. Not only does it degrade morale, it robs you. It robs you of the opportunity to relate with your coworkers as colleagues and friends.

Well Executed Failure

I’d like to talk about how strategic is different from tactical. Before you go calling me Tactico-Strategicus, be warned that I differ in perspective with the tyrant in an important way. If you remember, the tyrant views tactical and strategic as a balance between near and long term plans. I’d rather distinguish strategic and tactical as occupying two different realms of thought.

The realm of strategic thought is known by it’s compelling need to understand a problem. Such a compulsion prioritizes decision options, evaluating outcomes, and anticipating consequences. The realm of tactical thought is known by it’s preoccupation with solving a problem. Such preoccupation values methods, techniques, and application of tools.

Tactical thought is advantageous in circumstances when action is at a premium and a clear target has already been set. Strategic thought enables you to move beyond the problem as it was provided, to gain deeper insight into the real problem. Remember, no matter how elegant, a solution that misunderstands the problem is a well executed failure.