Monday, September 28, 2009

The Bubble Boy

The last person to get knocked out of a poker tournament before they get to the cash payouts is called the "Bubble Boy." Celebrating the arrival of the Bubble Boy is great fun for everyone but, you guessed it, the Bubble Boy.

I watched a World Series of Poker broadcast the other night when they were going to "break the bubble" and get into the cash. Poker celebrities were talking about the misery of being the Bubble Boy, their own experience with the bubble and their hopes for this year. They all took pity on the Bubble Boy, except Daniel Negreanu, a well-known Canadian player. Daniel celebrated the Bubble Boy as someone who took a risk when they were close to the reward. He said they could walk away and people should say, "there's a guy who is going to be a great poker player."

I think there's two ways to have a career, and one of them looks a lot like the Bubble Boy. You can choose to be the methodical, incremental value creator or you can be the make-it-or-break-it person, the one that succeeds and fails a dozen times. The one that creates stories worth telling - about the times they hit and the times they missed.

Sometimes that person has to walk away from the table, but it doesn't have to be in shame. Someone will be saying, "there's a guy who is going to do great things."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pursuing Happiness

This might be a really simple idea, but sometimes I can forget it. My guess is that you're prone, too.

What we chase to make us happy and what actually makes us happy are often two different things. We chase a bigger salary, a nicer car, a trip to Mexico or a bigger office. We chase acknowledgement for our volunteer efforts or for someone to compliment our new shirt. We save up to buy... wait, who am I kidding? We use our credit card to buy a new camera.

Without fail, these items soon become part of our new routine or a distant memory. Once the euphoria fades away, we're filled with "what next?"

There's a pattern here, and if we step back for a moment it's easy to see it. The majority of our lives is spent in the routine, not the moment of achievement. If your happiness is derived from THE NEXT THING, you're establishing that you will live most of your life unfulfilled. Sure, you get a sense of satisfaction when you attain something, but that's fleeting.

I say we should focus on what's constant. Rather than "what's next?", how about asking "what am I doing on a consistent basis?" Then, if you plan to continue repeating the pattern, figure out how being in that moment can make you happy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It feels like it got out of hand

I checked in with a colleague to see how he was and how his project was going.

He said he had completed his recommendation and submitted it. When he saw it in the next phase, it had substantially changed.

"How did you feel about that?" I asked.

"Well, by the end, it kinda got out of my hands anyway. I was more just interpreting instruction than making choices for the recommendation."

Turns out, it wasn't really his project anymore. He was still holding the document, but his "superiors" were calling the shots.

That's disappointing. That's a brain underutilized, to say the least.

When the project got into this dynamic, you can guess he was still spending a lot of time revising and editing the document. However, the rules changed in terms of what he did to make it better. Sure, he still found the document could be improved if he applied his knowledge and skill, but he actually did a subtle little calculation that dramatically changes the overall outcome. He first determined if he intrinsically cared enough about the project to go through the eye rolls, the patient deep breaths and the paternal voice that tells him why they're not doing it that way. Most of the time, you can guess that he determined it wasn't worth the discomfort.

If you're a manager, please understand that taking things out of people's hands isn't done by announcing that you're taking it out of their hands. I know you've got better sense than to take that drastic step. Taking things out of their hands happens when you amend their work without consultation or you cram your expectations for the product down their throat. I know you've got pressures and deadlines. What's the emergency that justifies ripping the individuality and creativity from your employees?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Survival is NOT Enough

Jonathan Mead and his Illuminated Mind have been exceptionally inspirational for me lately. I can't say enough about how his writing seems directed right at me. I mentioned in an earlier post about his terms of "renting out your mind" and "getting paid to exist." These are now daily phrases for me as I try and make sense of my place in the world.

Jonathan has now released a new, free ebook, the Zero Hour Work Week that you should read. After reading it myself, I sat down and started writing what I've called my "liberty project." This is a project plan to take me into uncharted waters... well, uncharted for me, not for people like Jonathan. It's about a disciplined, bootstrapping sort of workplan to create value for me, my family and my community. Best case scenario, I'm rewriting my plan for making a living. At minimum, I'm rewriting my strategy for how I'm relevant and how I make meaning.

This is deeply personal stuff and it's more than a little scary. I'll borrow from Seth Godin's Survival Is Not Enoughwhen I say it's hard to let go of my "winning strategy." This strategy has served me so very well up to now. In conventional terms, I've been doing everything right. I'm educated, I have lots of competence at marketing, strategic planning, policy development and simply just getting stuff done. When I'm not stirring the pot too much at work, my employers appreciate my efforts. I've come in to a bigger salary and more responsibility than I dreamed of... but I feel a dissonance. It feels like I'm running a fool's errand. The "success" I'm pursuing isn't actually what I want. When I step back, I see that I'm just one in a herd of buffalo, stampeding for a cliff. It would be so easy to just keep running, blamelessly running. But I can't do that. I've seen the truth. I'm obligated to stop, to reverse direction.

This is a journey almost entirely within my own mind, about my own behaviours and about my own willingness to rewrite my script. I'm reprogramming. Though this is almost entirely between my ears, it's surprisingly hard.

I'm working with a policy of being radically honest, even if that makes me uncomfortable. I recognize that this policy also results in a post that just sort of dangles out there without resolution, so here's one: I feel better being on the journey than having the feeling that I need to start.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Am I just being repetitive?

Now that I've been blogging for a while, I would say this is the question that haunts me the most. A lot of magnificent thinkers and writers are talking about the same sorts of things I am talking about.

I've just learned about They have a model is called ROWE, the Results Only Work Environment In my estimation, it's brilliant. I downloaded the introduction and first chapter of their book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, and the evisceration they give to our out-dated perspective on time is fantastic.

So what am I doing here blogging when other people are already saying it so well? Well, two things. First, I'm forcing myself to get my own thoughts into a coherent format and be responsible for them. It's tremendously helpful, if not even a little cathartic. Second, I'm contributing my voice to a movement, one that needs every member the world can spare.

Your quiet agreement to some or all of what I say is great. Agreeing in a not so quiet manner, through voice or action, is powerful.

Oh, hang on. There's a third reason. By blogging, I'm learning a ton. I'm not sure I would have come across ROWE without the generosity of a reader. Thanks Sebastian.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Coral battles and the slow growth of bureaucracy

I just watched the Blue Planet episode where they show how coral grows and overtakes other coral.

Here's the piece that got me thinking. At 38 seconds there is some fascinating time-lapse footage of one coral overtaking another.

If you were snorkeling or scuba-diving by this fascinating scene, would you notice? I think it would look pretty static and I would swim on by.

Bureaucracy is pretty static too, right? What if we could time-lapse photograph a bureaucracy? What would become apparent that's difficult to see with the naked eye? Speeding up the pace would likely make the slow encroachment of policies, procedures, restrictions and risk aversion look as sinister as this coral. If you sped it up , I think you'd see that the well-intended efforts to influence and control employee behaviour actually kills an employee's discretion and ability to be independently thoughtful.

This progress goes seemingly unnoticed every day. We tend to take for granted, or perhaps we shrug off, the daily insults to our autonomy and ability to be discerning. We choose not to push back. Through time-lapse, we'd see that we're losing the battle. We'd see the bureaucracy move forward so steadily that you'd think it could only be planned.

I don't in any way think it is planned. Rather, I see it stemming from a culture and paradigm of command and control that doesn't work. Those that champion this out-dated style or those who don't stand up against it need to see some time-lapse footage of its effects.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Flow, Flee or Fight revisited

I had a media inquiry regarding my manifesto (a link to the manifesto is on the left if you want to see it). Here's the questions and my answers. I hope you enjoy it.

1. You say that: The vast majority of employees sit on the fence. They’re not completely gone, but they’re not completely there, either. I think this is a dismal story of how our businesses and our economy exists. What is the best way to stop people sitting on the fence?

I am going to point you to another resource for a better answer for this one. The Canadian Management Centre wrote The Perfect Storm. I've attached it. Following my read of that, I wrote on my whiteboard at work, "The environment engages and retains." That's it. Give them an environment that allows them to be creative, insightful and passionate. They'll do the rest. People sit on the fence because they don't believe their effort will make a difference. Give them an environment that is open and responsive, they'll see opportunity and get engaged.

My manifesto implicitly suggests that the creation of such an environment is not commonly done. If that's true, I'm suggesting an employee could say, "I don't care if they don't want to create a welcoming, engaging environment. I'm going to get engaged anyway." I'd say that's option 2, after it's clear the employer isn't going to make the right kind of environment in the first place.

2. Have you ever been the mastermind behind a big employee engagement strategy?

No. I've worked to get my own direct reports engaged, with moderate success. That was a staff of eight. Unfortunately, I work in one of those big bureaucracies that just doesn't have the impetus to create the kind of environment the Canadian Management Centre talks about. I may have created an environment that encouraged ideas, engagement, risk-taking and innovation, but I think there is always a level of distrust... staff know our ideas can and will get overruled. I am not the ultimate authority in that organization. This really spawned my vision for Flow, Flee or Fight. At some point, it becomes a very personal choice to instigate change from within your own circle of influence. Here comes option 2...

3. You make the important point that individuals within a company can instigate change. Have people written to you since your piece was published, to tell you they have done this successfully?

No. I get emails from people identifying with the article. They say that they tried fighting for a while, then they burnt out and switched to flee. That's what I do, too. I think we're not going to find that example of one person that changes the entire culture single-handedly, unless maybe they're the ultimate decision-maker. More likely, you're going to find subtle cultural shifts that happened because one, two or a dozen individuals make the decision to fight.

4. You cite a survey that has found that only one in five employees choose to undertake the discretionary effort required to resolve a new challenge. What does that say about modern workplaces?

It says that they are overwhelmingly inefficient. An employer could get so much more value out of employees, if only they made the investment necessary to create an engaging environment. I'm willing to wager that workers on the floors at GM have ideas and energy to reinvent that company... for real. Unfortunately, whatever environmental measures are in place have made an "us vs. them" environment. Employees are disempowered and disengaged. There's no incentive to dive in and innovate, so employees watch the company flounder and cash their paycheques.
There is a school of thought that suggests the GFC simply accelerates a much-needed change in the way work environments are designed. Modern workplaces aren't modern at all. They're clinging on to a "command and control" paradigm that doesn't motivate knowledge workers and is too inefficient. I suspect that most workplaces won't respond to this accelerated requirement for an engaging workplace. They'll keep clinging on to an old management philosophy while upstarts or progressive organizations figure it out and eat their lunch.

5. A lot of employees want to see change in an organisation, see the need to boost morale. Why do so few of these people ever do anything about it?

Fear. For every action they could take, there is a fear or social norm that they have to come to terms with.

The creation of an alternate culture requires leadership. It requires someone to say "I don't believe in our practices. I want to get to the same place as you, but I believe there's a better way to get there." At minimum, they will be labelled a heretic. They'll also be quietly encouraged to get back in line, to stop making the boss look bad and quit stressing everybody out. If an environment doesn't encourage a challenge to the status quo, this takes a lot of self-confidence and conviction.

6. A lot of employees will not be happy with your perspective, preferring to pass the buck to “management”. What is your response to that?

OK. How's that working out for you?

I'm talking about pursuing satisfaction and even happiness at work. I would be surprised to hear that someone is finding satisfaction through passing the buck. More likely, they're finding validation and a moral righteousness but things still suck. I'm open to alternatives that give people a sense of control and engagement, but complaining about the boss, by itself, has never seemed very satisfying.

We spend all too much time worrying about the dissenters. I'm more interested in the huge majority of employees that are "on the fence" or are inclined to put some work in to becoming engaged. You don't need 100 percent buy-in to change the environment.