Air, Water, Food

AstronautThere’s no time like the present to set goals. Here’s a framework I use for myself and those I manage or advise.

I generally try to classify projects into three levels of priority before I consider adding resources to anything on deck: Air, Water, and Food.

In the unlikely event everything classified under Air, Water, and Food is done and behind us, I might move onto the next realm of importance, but generally, if it’s not Air, Water, or Food, it is going to get a very low priority,

I’m stealing broadly from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but suppose you were an astronaut in orbit and the red light in the capsule appeared. How do you set priorities? Largely by survival.

Without air, you have seconds to live.

Without water, you have days to live.

Without food, you have weeks to live.

Everything after that is discretionary.

Whether you are setting high-level goals or project priorities, try ranking your options into these categories.

What is Air?

In a services business, it might be customers.

In an e-commerce business, it might be secure uptime.

In product development, it might be an innovative, competitive technology solution that is worth marketing because it will surprise and delight customers.

“Air” initiatives are the items on your to-do list that if not attended to immediately may cause a business to be gone very soon. Sometimes they are obvious. Take the examples above. If you don’t protect your customers in a services business, you don’t have a business. If you don’t have a product worth selling, you don’t have a business. If you are selling online and you are not safely live to the world, you don’t exist.

It’s relatively easy to see the obvious examples of Air, but sometimes they are counterintuitive. I often write about People, Products, Profits—in that order. Are people, or the talent that drives your company, Air? The answer is absolutely yes—we cannot accomplish much of anything without the right team, but none of us has the unlimited capacity to hire everyone we want. It is precisely because talent is Air that it takes discipline to know which people you need now and which may have to wait. Your budget will always create some constraints, as will the availability of people you wish to recruit and the forced ranking of your priorities.

Of all the choices you make, Air should be the least subjective. When you feel it leaving the room, you know you are doing something vitally wrong. Don’t let Air get away from you, or the next two points won’t matter.

What is Water?

In a services business, it might be tailoring what is offered to individual customer needs.

In an e-commerce business, it might be sufficient variety of differentiated listings to attract and retain customers.

In product development, it might be the process management that lets you create a dependable schedule.

“Water” initiatives are what you need to build the business once you are certain the Air around you is sustainable. These are the projects in your organization that are essential, the ones that cannot be postponed unless there is an Air-eliminating crisis to address. Of course, if there are too many crises in an organization, you will never get to Water, and that will only keep you going slightly longer than losing Air.

Consider the example of product development: Air is ideation, the vision that will set your offering apart from those of your competitors. Water is the ability to deliver it. If you can’t create a project plan and product development schedule that you can actualize within your financial means, the concept won’t have any value. You need to be demanding about Water, but you also need to be realistic.

How important is knowing Water when you see it? Take the metaphor to its extreme: Suppose you have an abundance of Air, but you can’t get to Water. How long will you last? That’s how important Water is. It’s not Air, but it’s not far behind. Use discipline when you deem something Water. Everything that isn’t Air can’t be Water, or you’ll never have enough.

What is Food?

In a services business, it might be referrals, reputation, or word of mouth,

In an e-commerce business, it might be reliable customer service.

In product development, it might be the parsing of features and benefits to plan generational updates that improve upon each other.

“Food” initiatives allow you some discretion. You can live a relatively long time with just Air and Water, so you get to decide what constitutes Food and how to procure it creatively. If you make a mistake anointing something Food, perhaps prioritizing one product feature over another, if you’re wrong it probably isn’t the end of the world. That doesn’t mean you can be cavalier about determining your alternatives, but at least you’re out of the realm of immediate time pressure and into a set of choices where course correction is possible, even if you make a sizeable error in judgment.

I often suggest to people that one of the common elements of Food is time. Some people will think time is Air or Water, but a ticking clock is not the same as a clock that is not wound or has no power source. Time is something we all have to navigate, and we never have enough because of the deadlines we establish for ourselves or the demands of meeting customer needs. I prefer to manage time the way a good sports team works the game clock. There is an element of urgency with a game clock, but not desperation. You can use it as a motivational tool, or as a way to outsmart competitors. Time is always critical, but when it is too critical, innovation can take a hit.

Balance the Elements

Have a look at all the conflicting priorities around you. Force yourself to rank them into Air, Water, and Food. Chances are you’ll discover you are trying to solve for Food when you should be trying to solve for Air or Water. That might be why you are going in circles or nowhere at all. I have taken part in some heated constructive conflict about how to classify any given task in an organization, but I have seldom seen the framework for this kind of healthy argument fail to create a productive dialogue.

Agreed priorities are empowering, When you achieve consensus around Air, Water, and Food, you are making critical progress in your team building and goal setting. Measurable success is often lurking in meticulous editing.

Most important, if what you are working on is beyond the scope of Air, Water, Food and you’ve left these priorities behind, stop what you are doing immediately and rethink your course of action. If you haven’t got Maslow working in your corner at that basic level, the battery in your clock may be about to take away all your choices.

Own the clock. Always own the clock.

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Photo: Pixabay

Managing Through Absurdity

I began 2020 by asking the question: Can Business Be Philosophical? Little did I know it was going to be a test.

As this very difficult year comes to an end, I’ve been mulling over any learning I can carry forward. I’ve been pondering the fundamental notion of quarantine, a strategy I’ve never before considered as a defense against an invisible assailant. I’ve even taken to religious texts for clues on interpreting the darkness. I’m not finding many answers to my perhaps impossible questions, but I do find myself zeroing in on a direction in thought that has guided me as a coping strategy in traversing shaky ground.

What are we supposed to learn from the year of pandemic? If there is no learning in crisis, then a repeat of the same crisis is inevitable. I don’t believe that because it ends the contest between fatalism and free will. We can’t throw in the towel that easily.

Understand the Malady

Might I suggest we have been living through a period of absurdity?

Covid-19 thus far taking the lives of more than a million and a half people globally and 300,000 Americans is absurdity.

The failure of our government to be in a state of readiness for this crisis is absurdity.

Conflicting policies between federal, state, and municipal restrictions is absurdity.

Misaligned interstate regulations in a nation where we travel freely is absurdity.

Hospitals with ICU wards beyond capacity is absurdity.

Categorical rejection by millions of a protective vaccine is absurdity.

Systemic racism is absurdity.

Failure to acknowledge and address systemic racism is absurdity.

Police brutality directed at people of color is absurdity.

Suffering wildfires and hurricanes while rejecting climate science is absurdity.

A president who lies endlessly for convenience as an alternative matter of style is absurdity.

A soundly defeated political candidate and his followers denying the legitimacy of validated democratic process is absurdity.

That’s a lot of absurdity. It can’t be tucked away in a vault. It can’t be explained away by any retroactive framework. Our ability to move on confidently hangs in the balance.

Maintain Integrity

I wonder, have we arrived exhausted at a place and time where all opinions are due equal consideration? If I say that the moon is made of cheese, is that just another point of view I get to insist is as valid as any other idea? Are we so proud of killing political correctness that we have forgotten the pernicious blurring effect of false equivalency?

Like all of us, this year I had to make a lot of hard decisions. Many of them impacted the lives of others. I worried at length about the easy draw of relativism and situational ethics.

By relativism, I mean the temptation to justify a decision I might not otherwise make because of the material circumstance of contemporary events.

By situational ethics, I mean the ability to justify a twist in the consistent application of values as warranted by endlessly deteriorating real-world conditions.

Neither of these is ever desirable, but faced with absurdity, it is easy to see how one could slide toward an argument that was de facto temporary and expirable.

Don’t Make It Worse

In times of turmoil, we must never cross our own lines of absolute right and wrong, but can we know for certain under extreme duress where those lines begin and end?

I suppose some might think the justification or compromise of authority in our pragmatic world is linked to intention. Is the outcome of a tense judgment call broadly beneficial or narrowly self-serving? If we do something we otherwise wouldn’t for a public purpose, for the greater good, is it okay to bend our own rules? If we don’t do it to benefit ourselves, can it be less highly scrutinized?

Those are all curious frameworks I’m sure many in leadership positions encountered this year. None of it worked for me. I chose instead to steer toward a path I could consider consistent. That was an early lesson in managing through absurdity. When faced with absurdity, the first mandate had to be not to compound the absurdity with more absurdity.

Remain Methodical

I thought I might call this post: “What I learned this year.” Then I decided I didn’t learn it this year. The learning has been cumulative. Socrates suggested that all learning is recollection (Socrates also believed in reincarnation, so of course all learning would be recollection).

This year I have been recalling the battles of previous crises: 9-11; the internet bubble; a corporate hostile takeover; a shareholder war; the CDO financial collapse. These were all instances of absurdity. We know that 2020 is not an isolated collection of discord; it’s recency might just make it feel that way.

Maybe that’s the key learning: absurdity can’t be suppressed. It can at best be navigated. Calm, thoughtful teamwork is a good place to start. Collective learning and brainstorming are usually more exponential in effect than individual edict or hunch.

That doesn’t mean we can allow absurdity to become our norm. Dysfunction has to be called out. Identifying dysfunction is often where healing begins. We will be tossed into absurdity again, and the choice will remain: dig in deeper or dig our way out. We’ve proven conclusively we can do both.

Not long ago I happened upon a streaming performance by Bill Irwin at The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. He enacted several passages from one of my favorite plays, Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s existential masterpiece is about absurdity, about inaction masquerading as action. It is a play of anxiety where nothing happens except for the characters’ recognition of their own circuitous fate. Are Didi and Gogo noble in trying to identify purpose when escape is beyond their ability to see past the proscenium? They may go nowhere, but they never give up hope. The unsettling themes of tedium and uncertainty seem incredibly apt for our times.

Learn to Learn Quickly

Yes, it’s been a hell of a year. Loss, fear, isolation, alienation, pressure, financial inequality, hardball rhetoric, political divisiveness, ceaseless conflict— it’s been a nasty witch’s brew of stress. Are we ready now to embrace empathy?

My ongoing observation in getting past this and getting on to that is that life is too short. I don’t mean that to be cerebral or pithy, but practical. We can’t learn stuff fast enough to put it to work. Just when we start to understand how things work we are old and retiring. If only we could learn it sooner, faster, how much better our work, our interactions, the whole of our lives might be. If only knowledge as recollection could be accelerated to a state of immediacy.

Sadly our journeys aren’t predictable that way. We know what we know when we know it. We can’t reach for answers we don’t have because absurdity comes calling. Our experience emerges and compounds at its own pace. We can no more control the amassing of experience than we can control the unfolding of absurdity.

We must take what we know, apply it the best we can when faced with turmoil, and remain true and consistent to the values we cherish. We will fail often, but the faster we fail, the faster we learn what not to do. That modest confession is my takeaway in managing through this morass.

That’s not absurdity. That’s reality.

I wish you a brilliant, healthy, revitalizing new year of recovery and inspiration.

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Photo: Pixabay

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