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

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

5 Key Learnings in Crisis

Many of us are trying to decipher some level of meaning in the Covid-19 crisis. I must admit, I’m unable to find any. This is an act of nature, an act of environment. I see no message in either the depths of pain and loss this disease is causing globally, or the resulting social and economic havoc that is its byproduct. I think if you’re looking for a clear definition of existential occurrence, this is as clear as it gets.

For better or worse, the dialogue doesn’t have to end there. Like any shock to the system, Covid-19 does offer us some learning opportunities. I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past several weeks. Here are five modest headlines I believe can be some of our more instructional takeaways once we together find a way to cross the chasm.

Leadership and trust are inseparable.

In the absence of recognized authority, chaos will fill the vacuum. We are seeing this and suffering with it day after day. The issue is not whether we are politicizing a deadly disease, whether our polarization is obstructing more sensible activity. In times of distress, we all crave calming leadership around which we can rally. As I have written many times before, trust cannot be assigned, it has to be earned. Effective leadership cannot be mandated. Leadership is acknowledged by example.

There is no such thing as alternative facts. A fact is a fact. While scientific practice can be revisited by disproving the conclusions around previously applied data, it can only be done so with more disciplined inquiry and even more rigorously evidenced data. An intelligent, educated population hungers for touchpoints of agreement that can be demonstrated empirically. without hype, manipulation, or ulterior motives. Our nation and our planet have indeed managed through historical crises worse than Covid-19. If you look back at how those triumphs occurred, you will likely see the link between leadership and trust on grand display.

Investing in readiness is not a luxury.

I wish I could find the words to express my dismay in how flat-footed our nation has proven itself in addressing a severe threat to our fundamental health and wellness. Even the most basic understanding of chain of command is absent in our adopted strategies and tactics. Many wonder if our collective investment in government will be there to protect us when we need it most. Today we turn on the television and hear wailing debate, not cohesive response. In a nation as wealthy and with as much advanced expertise as we have, how is it possible that medical personnel are making their rounds wearing plastic garbage bags rather than professional scrubs?

Few enterprises can survive a substantial blindside without some playbook on the shelf. If you have worked in a well-run company, you have been a part of scenario planning—deep discussions and studied research around abstract calamities. Sometimes teams immersed in these simulations consider the use of resources inefficient. If you’ve ever come out the other side of a whirlwind attack, you know how important having most of the debate behind you can be. Game theory developed with care is how bad problems become less bad, and opportunities become apparent in the fog of war.

We are more resilient than we may think.

When I think about the crises that have come before—our Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars, nuclear proliferation—it’s hard to understand how we are still here. When you listen to survivors of monumental suffering talk about how they endured the unbearable challenges of their lives, it becomes clear that perspective and context are necessary to frame whatever tests may be interrupting our current plans.

We can handle more than we think we can. We can solve problems that at any given moment seem unsolvable. I’m not sure this crisis is as much about Covid-19 itself as it is about how poorly we are addressing it, and yet, the losses we will suffer will not be the last losses we endure. To lose a family member or loved one is untenable. To lose someone unnecessarily is impossible to rationalize. To lose one’s livelihood is a level of devastation we likely all fear and some of us will inevitably experience. As we work our way down the scale of loss, the true strength inside of us may as yet be untapped. Called upon to continue, we might see that the historical odds suggest there are brighter days ahead if we bolster the fortitude of resilience.

Bonding ahead of distance allows shorthand.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have been asked to work at home in a time where technology makes that proposition possible. Could the notion of sheltering in place two decades ago without broadband internet even have been an option? That said, not all teams were ready to work remotely, particularly leadership teams. If you were working well in a shared space there is a good chance you are succeeding with distance. If there was tension, anxiety, and aggravation before you had to communicate through a screen, I can only imagine your turmoil without in-person connection.

I know in my company it would be a lot harder to manage our way through daily operations with a newly assembled management team than with teammates who already know each other reasonably well. Of course the timing of crisis doesn’t come with the convenience of established tenure. To the extent you believe something like a novel coronavirus will interrupt us again—and how could it be otherwise—I would suggest we use the ordinary times of our work to prepare for the extraordinary times that might otherwise derail us. This starts with the bonds we establish in normalcy.

All behavior is consequential.

I think about the difference between the business partners who are working cooperatively in this havoc to achieve long-range, positive outcomes and those who are shortsighted and only see the coming weeks ahead of them. Asserting one’s will, even asserting the letter of the law in a contract, is not how relationships are formed. Give a little now and you may have a customer for life. Insist on taking all that is rightfully yours and it might be the last speck of gold you extract from the mine.

Tone matters in a negotiation. Listening matters when opinions differ. If you choose to assert leverage because you think you can get away with it, if you believe that bullying tactics are how you protect the fort, you’re unlikely to enjoy a long and lasting impact on your industry. Business is a rollercoaster of cycles, and we aren’t all going up or down at the same time. Never forget that old cliche: Jobs in context are relatively brief; careers may be long or short depending on how you manage your timeline.

When I was circulating an early draft of this post for feedback as I often do, I was reminded by a wise friend not to miss the obvious lesson before us, the simplicity of appreciation. He reminded me that gratitude is profound, and it is always powerful to celebrate the goodness in what we have, the majesty in sharing each new day where the gifts within our reach should not be taken for granted. I think that’s good advice. I wish you the wellness that will return us to a revived global community.

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Image: CDC

 

Can Business Be Philosophical?

Recently I shared with you my passion for philosophy. You probably know I also have a profound passion for business.

And music, The Beatles, The Dodgers, wine, literature, children’s needs, social justice, and other stuff.

Back to philosophy and business: can they intersect?

This is where a lot of cynicism enters the picture.

Mark Zuckerberg says he is all about free speech and building global communities. He would have us believe a business—at least his business—should not be editing political expressions, even for accuracy. He asserts this is up to individuals to assess, or for the government to regulate if it can figure out a reasonable and fair way to impose guidance.

Should we believe Zuckerberg the visionary or Zuckerberg the voracious competitor? It doesn’t take a lot of analysis to know his goal is to keep selling ads, that any restrictions on free expression create a slippery slope for the addiction of his site contributors (i.e. all of us powering his pages with free content). It’s pretty clear he wants a level playing field around restrictions, meaning if the government regulates Facebook, he wants it to regulate all his competitors where he maintains a competitive advantage and is likely to win with ubiquitous rules.

Are free speech and “leave me alone to make money” compatible ideals, or the best possible excuse for self-interest?

Let’s try again.

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They are all about creating a definitive archive for global knowledge, about ensuring the best customer experience, and once upon a time about not being evil. That’s some philosophy!

Have you done a search on Google lately? Remember when organic search returns were clearly separated in columns from sponsored search returns? Yeah, that was before mobile made that largely impossible with much smaller screens. Today you practically have to be Sherlock Holmes to know what’s a paid ad on Google and what’s global knowledge. The keyword ads are everywhere. There’s a reason. They figured out how few bills the world’s information actually pays when displayed. They know which clicks are bankable in that trillion-dollar valuation.

One more for the road?

Apple wants us to believe it is at the heart of protecting our privacy, right to the edge of protecting the login codes of suspected dangerous criminals. Maybe that’s a big idea we have a hard time embracing because its scope means the tiny basket of bad eggs has to enjoy equal privacy if we want to protect the gigantic basket of good eggs.

Yet if privacy as a strategic mandate is a paramount position at Apple, how does the company abstract itself from all the apps that transmit our personal information to the data-mining servers of the world as fast as we type it in? Apple says it makes secure devices that are safe to use; that’s all they do and they do it brilliantly. If those devices open tunnels between those seeking data and those leaking data (again, all of us), that’s our tunnel to barricade or avoid, and it would be illogical to ask them to detour us otherwise.

Can a company have a point of view on elevated ideals, or are these polished notions just a bullhorn cry from the PR department?

I guess it all comes down to what we want to believe is a pure, important idea, and how far a company will go to spin a concept to its own advantage.

The issue is one of authenticity. Does a company truly embrace beliefs that are worth evangelizing, or are its statements around absolutes justifications of convenience?

Proclamations are not philosophy. A mission statement is not philosophy. Company values are not philosophy. All of these are constructs meant to unify the purpose of a business, but the business entity’s constant struggle with ambiguity, competition, and the demands of ownership too often compromises ideas when financial interests are at risk. We can say we want to act in a certain way, but will we always?

I have to admit, I have been guilty over the years of trying to inject philosophy into business practice. I have not been terribly successful. The conflicts of interest abound, and the enormously hard work of maintaining consistency can be exhausting. I used to have my employees read a book called Freedom and Accountability at Work by Peter Kostenbaum and Peter Block. It is about existentialism in the workplace. All but one colleague told me they couldn’t get past the first chapter. At least they were honest about it.

How do we avoid hypocrisy and cynicism in a world where we want to be better? We are often told Millenials want us to rise to a higher standard, that cause-based marketing resonates strongly with their brand loyalty. I think it is possible to “do good while doing well,” but I don’t think we accomplish this if we pretend we’re something that we’re not.

Instead of declarations that render themselves hopelessly artificial, companies can humble themselves in restraining their platitudes around the possible. Instead of attempting to hide behind crumbling categorical imperatives, business might be better suited to achievable standards that are consistently authentic.

Tell me the truth all the time, and I may trust you. Don’t tell me why your definition of truth is defined in the unreadable footnotes at the bottom of the page.

Be aspirational, and I may join in the celebration of your mission and values. Don’t tell me that your company has discovered or defined a nobility that somehow makes you better than your competition.

Be well-meaning in the goods and services you provide, whether ensuring quality or seeking a healthier supply chain, and I may respect your brand. Don’t proselytize and expect me to believe you are pursuing a higher calling—profits be damned—when transparency betrays your more obvious motivations.

A business can be great, even legendary, without being philosophical. Let it be honest, consistent, and authentic—that’s plenty to tackle and enormously difficult on top of being outrageously good at something. The agenda of business is measurable, culminating in success.

Leave philosophy to the philosophers. Who would that be? That can be any of us—the storytellers around the campfire, the quiet voices in a coffee shop, the ardent dialogue in anyone’s home. The agenda of sharing, exchanging, and challenging ideas is immeasurable and ultimately boundless.

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Photo: Pexels