When a Mess Is Not a Mess

True story: When I sat down to write this blog post, immediately after typing the title, I spilled a glass of iced tea on my desk.

How appropriate, pointedly ironic, I thought. I am about to write an article saying that a mess is not always a mess, and then I make a mess.

Or did I?

It’s probably not lost on you that the next thing I did after spilling my iced tea was to clean my desk. Save for the few papers that were soaked and had to be tossed (ah, well!) it gave me the long procrastinated opportunity to eradicate some clutter. Where there was long-ignored dust between books and computer cords, there are visible patches of polished wood. Who knows when I would have gotten to those desktop dust bunnies?

And so a modest mess immediately became an opportunity, precisely the story I wanted to tell.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Hot Mess is a contemporary descriptor gaining momentum. I’m not sure I understand its full colloquial application, but it does seem to roll off the tongue.

Has the global pandemic complicated by contradictory expressions of strategy and uncertain leadership left us of late in a hot mess? It would be hard to argue the contrary.

Facts and opinions are muddled. Too many hospital intensive care wards are filled. Families are losing loved ones. Jobs have been wiped out in record numbers. Businesses are told they can reopen only to be told to close again. No one is quite sure whether schools should be attended in person. We’re even arguing with each other about whether mandated mask safety constitutes some violation of personal liberty.

Yes, that is some hot mess. It lacks leadership and accountability. It’s chaos that has been largely disowned rather than harnessed for cohesive transformation.

What’s the difference? When can we throw our hands in the air with rage and declare a hot mess, and when is it an opportunity? Better asked: Aren’t we always better off trying to convert a mess into an opportunity?

Having faced a lot of business messes in my years—and largely knowing that every time I have been able to do something I believed mattered it was because I was asked to unpack a mess—here’s where I think healthy optimism is warranted.

Customers are your best bet at keeping your business alive. If you have a growing base of profitable customers, give thanks; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Cash flow is essential to keeping your business alive. If you have access to enough cash to remain current on payables, rejoice humbly; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Talent and teamwork are the secret sauce in keeping your business alive. If you have motivated colleagues who share your challenges, bump an elbow; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Customers, cash flow, and collegial partners all create the runway we need to address our messes. Lose those, and a spreading mess can swallow up the best of us.

A runway buys you time. That time is precious, and it’s what you need to convert a mess into an opportunity. If you have runway, you’ll be surprised how much you can fix. Think runway, and if you are fortunate enough to have some, stop beating yourself up over ordinary obstacles.

It’s easy to get frustrated, angry, even demoralized when faced with mountains of deferred maintenance. Anyone coming into a challenging situation would prefer to focus on productive reinvention over time-consuming tasks that were swept under the rug by their retired predecessor. The temptation to declare a catastrophe is often strongest when critical progress appears to be at a standstill. You might be missing the dawn lurking beyond darkness.

A failed product? Not solely a mess, but perhaps an opportunity to build a much better product.

Too much infighting among your team? Certainly an uncomfortable mess, but perhaps an opportunity to foster consensus-building or ultimately reconsider some difficult personnel decisions.

Poor choices in back-office systems creating endless administration? Often cited as a mess, but truly an opportunity to bite the bullet and wipe away the information systems that are holding back progress.

An onslaught of unfair legal claims against the honest work you are pursuing? No one likes lawyer messes, expensive as they are, but there remains opportunity in learning from outside actions and readying yourself against future burdensome attacks.

Data accumulating in bulk without the proper framework for analysis or tools for funneling it toward well-reasoned responses? Little can create as much of a mess as terabytes of randomly collected data, but once you wrestle that data into programs for decision making, you will be hard-pressed to find a higher value mass of opportunity.

The point is not to confuse basic management problems with crises.

It’s a problem if parts of your business are broken, but those broken parts don’t necessarily constitute a crisis.

Not having enough loyal customers to buy you runway is a crisis.

Running out cash and not being able to secure enough to extend your runway is a crisis.

Not being surrounded by talent that can work your way out of a mess can easily become a crisis.

These kinds of messes often can’t be addressed soon enough to allow for a rebound. You have to decide if a mess is really an endgame or an obstacle to be navigated,

I remind people all the time: If there were no problems, then a business wouldn’t need management. The mess before you might be job security. It also may be opening the door to a brighter future you can’t yet anticipate.

We all spill iced tea on our desk now and again. Some of us get pissed off and spend the rest of the month complaining about the size of our desk and the lack of room for a proper drink holder. Others wipe up the mess and begin the next hour with a clean desk and a fresh perspective. Each mess is there either to consume us or let us transform its remedy into the hidden opportunity hiding under the wet towel.

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Photo: Pixabay

Desperately Needed Now

Last month I wrote about the value to be found in breaking through the noise all around us. For many readers the question remains: What do we need to better focus on actions that matter?

At the same time so many of the prior norms we may have taken for granted have deteriorated, I’ve had the joy of watching several business teams succeed. I continue to study closely how they are doing it, how they are staying focused, how they are transforming adversity into moments of triumph. There are commonalities in these observations that I hope become more accessible as we make our way through our national election and look forward to recovery from this awful pandemic.

What I am suggesting may sound like getting back to basics, but when those basics escape us, it can only help us to recognize the kind of leadership that allows us to traverse hurdles rather than be consumed by them. Here are three basic rebuilding blocks I think are helping the people I see emerging from crisis stronger—three basics I believe are desperately needed now.

We Need Confidence

We have to believe our concerted actions will get us somewhere. If we are asked to sacrifice we need a reason. If we are asked to embrace a plan, we need to understand the components of that plan. If we are told certain tactics will help us achieve a strategic goal, we need facts that support the premise of the actions we are asked to take.

When we are given specific examples of the kinds of masks that will protect us, we hear in those specifics a well-reasoned recommendation that is worth following. When we hear from historians that mail-in ballots have been used without measurable distortion since the Civil War, we know we can trust the results of an election with their expanded use in a time where location-based polling places are difficult to staff. These are simple examples where demonstrated expertise reinforces our confidence.

Curiously enough, it is precisely the twisting of confidence that lets a con artist win the day. The root of every “con” is the abuse of confidence. When we put our trust in leaders to help us navigate our way out of turmoil, we can be led to safety or over a cliff. There is always a risk in ascribing confidence to an unworthy teller of tales, but without confidence in testing the path of an outcome, what real hope do we have of escaping the status quo?

We crave confidence, and while skepticism is a healthy ally in committing one’s trust to another’s vision, it is incumbent upon us to sift through contradictions and congregate around a confident way forward. Confidence in leadership is the path to eliminating chaos, but only if that confidence is won nobly, with authenticity, care, respect, and a roadmap of trusted conclusions.

We Need Clarity

There is no progress without common ground. It is easy to argue about the many ways we differ. While those arguments may or may not ultimately resolve the most elusive issues of our world, we can’t go very far if we don’t agree on something. Clarity of both what critically matters and can be resolved is what lets us take a few steps together rather than remaining in place.

Sometimes I call this shared purpose. Other times I refer to it as consensus. In the fog of war, we must identify what can still be seen similarly and agreed.

I’d like to think we can agree in a battle-tested democracy that if we have an election and the results are certified, we can acknowledge the winner as a legally elected official. We may not agree with that elected official’s point of view, as is our cherished privilege in a democracy, but when the election is over, we must acknowledge the peaceful transfer of power as have past generations.

I’d like to think that if a majority of the nation’s foremost medical experts tell us that a fully vetted, FDA approved Covid-19 vaccine is ready for deployment, we can methodically proceed to adopt it, tempered by the recommendations of our own personal doctors. If we can’t achieve clarity around when the remedy to an ailment is ready for prime time, then we will stay stuck where we are without a way out.

I’m sure it isn’t lost on you that clarity and confidence are equally rooted in trust. Without trust that defines some standard of building consensus, we may be right to reject leaders and solutions, but the result will be ongoing chaos. That brings us to the need for each other.

We Need Connection

Zoom is not enough. Yes, Zoom and other forms of video technology are serving a meaningful role in bridging the gap where seeing each other in person used to be our norm, but it isn’t a substitute for the depth of human connection.

While I don’t think everyone who has been working from home will go back to commuting, I do wonder when I hear some people express they have lost little in not being together. I think about restoring confidence, about restoring clarity, about forming the kind of trust that lets us accomplish more together than we ever could individually, and I want to believe we can reinvent the many ways we connect.

When healthy circumstances allow, I want to see us back together at concerts, plays, sporting events, school recitals, art shows, favorite restaurants, and dare I say it, office meetings. Successful give and take requires nurturing. Brainstorming is powerful—it is the collective assembly of multiple points of view into the kind of shared purpose that creates our future.

Shared purpose? We get there through personal connection. Solving hard problems together? We get there through personal connection.

Endemic isolation frightens me. In the past week alone, I have learned of irreversible decisions individuals have made that might have been resolved otherwise were they not alone. Facebook is not doing much to resolve our differences. Twitter is a flyswatter we use on each other’s raw attempts at abbreviated expression.

How do I know we can do better at connecting with each other, at finding confidence and clarity? Because I am already seeing it in the worst of times with individuals I admire who are changing the world by deciding that matters more to them than being ground down by noise.

Make the choice to seek confidence, clarity, and connection. Ignite these basics throughout your community in leading by your own example—and as opportunity emerges, we might begin to capture the full potential of shared purpose. That inspiration is something we all surely need.

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Photo: Pixabay

Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.

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Image: Pixabay

What Is Normal?

I have never given a commencement address. Maybe someday I’ll be asked. No, I’m not fishing, just pondering the opportunity to rant a bit in academic garb. Ah for the chance at an honorary doctorate of anything from anywhere! Okay, now I’m fishing.

If I were invited to give such a dignified speech this year, I think the question I might pose to students is:

What is normal?

Why that? Much of what I’m hearing these days is all about getting back to something called normal.

What is normal after the Covid-19 pandemic?

What is normal after three months of shelter-in-place directives?

What is normal after the brutal police murder of George Floyd?

What is normal after millions of people flood into the streets for weeks to protest against systemic racial discrimination and social injustice?

Maybe what bothers me isn’t so much the idea of normal as the notion of getting back to some previous state that is somehow better than where we are at the moment.

Perhaps we want to believe there will a new normal. In that new normal, would it be possible we could all agree on what would constitute a better normal?

Could we all agree that honesty should be normal, that we shouldn’t lie, particularly when the consequences to others of not getting the truth could be dire?

Could we all agree that believing in science should be normal, and in unforgiving matters such as health and safety, documented facts should triumph over manipulating opinions?

Could we all agree that exercising our right to vote should be normal, that in a democracy we are better served if every citizen votes, that it should be easy to vote, that elections focus on well-reasoned policy instead of lobbyist agendas, and that politicians seek office to be public servants where scandal and mudslinging take a back seat to critical issues?

Could we all agree that the unquestionable dignity of human beings should be normal, and that matters of race, ethnicity, gender, faith, sexual orientation, and age have no place in one person casting judgment on another?

Could we all agree that acknowledging life as precious should be normal, that empathy is preferable over insult, that competition can make us better when we all play by the same enforced set of rules, that learning is preferable to ignorance, that opportunity is unequally distributed and a more level playing field lowers the barriers that help us pursue our dreams?

I suppose that might be a new normal, even a better normal, but I doubt a vast majority of us could agree on the details that constitute that level of agreement. It’s not something we can go back to, because it’s not something we ever had.

So what is this normal we’re thinking is just over the next big hill, after the coronavirus vaccine is widely distributed at low cost, every racist criminal who has committed an atrocity is prosecuted, and national unemployment returns to 3%?

Would it surprise you if I suggested that the new normal will not be dissimilar to the prior normal?

That normal is likely to remain turmoil.

Remember, this is a warm-up for a commencement address. I have to make a critical point you are supposed to encode as part of an inspirational framework for the many difficult choices you will face for the next five to eight decades.

That’s my point. Normal is turmoil.

Notice I didn’t say that form of normal is good. I just called it out as real. Turmoil came before us. We are in turmoil now. When this turmoil is behind us, there will be more turmoil. I didn’t invent it. I’ve just lived it.

Turmoil is normal because we live in an age of enormous change. Change is also normal, but most people really don’t like change. They say they do, but they don’t. Change is unsettling. Change forces us to embrace new norms. A normal reaction to change is turmoil.

Another word for turmoil is volatility. If you invest in the stock market, you have likely learned that volatility is not the exception, it is the norm. Certainly there are periods of trading calm, but the truth is the market is wildly volatile. If you put your money into equities and haven’t braced yourself for seismic fluctuations, you have either deceived yourself or been deceived. You can’t control or predict market fluctuations. No one can. Before any strategy of diversification matters, you have to decide if you’re in or you’re out.

To the extent we have acquired any form of assets, we have the choice to get in or get out of investments, to accept or reject the upside or downside of the norm of volatility.

We don’t have that choice with everyday life. We’re stuck with volatility.

Why would my commencement advice be to ready yourself for perpetual turmoil? I haven’t the intellectual authority to examine the realms of good and evil as states of nature one way or the other, but I will be so bold as to embrace the notion that progress and reform are directionally consistent. We may not follow a linear path of questioning all that has come before us or how to address it, but the state of upheaval that erases former ills and allows us to tackle the next set of falsehoods repeats itself generation after generation.

It’s usually messy. It’s usually painful. You can wish it were otherwise, but there is scant evidence to prove that it’s not.

I don’t believe anyone said it better than Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The same can be said for science. We are going to be wrong way more times than we wish before we are right. Then when we are right, we are going to be wrong about something else. The trick is not to replace an established fact with an irresponsible opinion while we are wrestling to replace a terribly concocted opinion with a newly demonstrated fact. If any aspect of your work involves the proof or disproof of hypothesis, you know the path is about as linear as the tunnels inside an ant farm.

The question of trying to live with normal raises the question of what is extraordinary, the very definition of which is NOT normal. Yet in our dynamic, global, connected world, extraordinary events will continue to be our norm. Exponential advances in technology assure this.

No broadband internet, no working at home. No mobile phones with built-in video cameras, no catching a vicious cop in the act of murder and broadcasting the evidence. More technology is coming, folks. It’s all going to be very normal. If you don’t think it’s going to bring turmoil, I think I’ve lost you.

If you were graduating today and I had something that I could assure you would be true, it would be that all of the maturing years ahead of you will be filled with volatility. You are going to have to make a lot of decisions swiftly in response to turmoil. Precedent is not always going to be relevant, because precedent too often is going to be old-normal wrong.

Nimble thinking, quick thinking, flexible thinking, balanced thinking, and compassionate thinking will be consistently required to navigate this turmoil. Accepting turmoil as normal requires the essential skill of close listening and lifelong learning. Quickly separating noise from authenticity in order to process and respond to unknown situations is not a nice-to-have tool; it is an essential skill that must be honed.

Noise is the enemy. Facts are your friends. Sound evaluation and informed consensus-building are the building blocks of crisis avoidance and resolution.

Let me wrap up with a parting thought. Earlier this year, before this latest round of turmoil and while focused on the last (remember the ancient impeachment hearings?), I was at a social justice panel where the final question posed to one of the panelists was to offer a brief phrase of hope.

After a long pause, that panelist, an immigration attorney, suggested that her longstanding immersion in vicarious trauma has led her to some minor comfort in vicarious resilience.

Vicarious resilience. That was a notion I found both humbling and empowering.

Vicarious resilience. That was a notion I wanted to embrace.

This attorney represents refugees and asylum seekers stuck at the border facing endless obstructions. They never give up hope. She takes on their vicarious resilience and makes it her own to continue fighting the nearly impossible fight against all odds.

I have written a lot over the years about resilience, but not in that frame of reference.

If normal is turmoil, then our path through normal just might be vicarious resilience. Write that on the back of your diploma and remember it through your retirement.

Never give up hope.

Oh, and as Steve Jobs would say, one more thing:

Black Lives Matter.

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Photo: Pexels