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.

_______________

Photo: Pixabay

What Should You Study to Be More Valuable in the Workforce?

webucatorWith so much recent talk and public debate about education as our path to prosperity, I was asked recently by a career training program what I believed were some key areas of focus students should pursue to assure job readiness. While I hardly consider myself a subject matter expert in this complex arena, the question certainly got me thinking about what I am looking for when I hire or when I recommend people for open positions. Here are three items I hope are obvious, but unfortunately may not be obvious enough.

Critical Thinking: These two words are so overused and misunderstood they are becoming clichés even before they are broadly adopted in practice. When I advocate critical thinking, I am talking about the ability to apply abstraction to a real-world problem, wrestle with the alternatives and implications in abstraction, and then synthesize the relevant tangents to a firm set of hypotheses that can be tested against the original problem. Here’s an example: Suppose the sales on your company’s website are trending poorly after a period of hyper growth and you are tasked with attacking the problem. The first thing I want you to do is abstract the problem, noting all the possible reasons sales could be down from seasonality to price to competition to product selection—you name it, the variables are endless. Now I want you to challenge your own reasoning against every one of those possibilities as they might apply in other real-word scenarios that are similar to yet somewhat different from your own business, whether it’s storefront sales or online sales in a different industry segment. Next I want you to narrow the possibilities to a set of concepts you can test so you are not boiling the ocean for an answer. Then of course I want you to act, where acting means collecting data that proves or disproves your hypotheses so you can make a recommendation. Studying math, science, philosophy, or the arts can help you learn critical thinking, but I promise you when you enter the workplace, the number of people you find who are really good at this will always be too few. That’s an opportunity for you to shine!

Fast Iteration: Coming directly down the path from critical thinking is fast iteration. What this means is that after you abstract a problem, you don’t have an endless amount of time to serve up your practical solution—competition is always coming at you without pause. You may have heard the phrase, “fail fast, fail often.” This is a mantra of Silicon Valley culture, where failure is often encouraged if it results in learning that can be applied. Fast iteration means framing a rough solution for a problem, testing it in application, reading the data and interpreting it quickly, and then putting a new version of your solution to test that incorporates the results of your prior test. Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as A/B testing or multivariate testing. This is a fancy way of saying take something that sort of works, make a change of one kind or another, send some of your customers to the original version and others to the new version and see which one performs better. Then take the knowledge of what performs better and repeat the cycle, with a champion version of the work being the best one you have and the challenger being one where changes are being made. This cycle continues endlessly, and the faster you can make changes and test new assumptions, the faster you will make continual progress. Want to know what you should learn from science labs like chemistry and physics? Learn this method of inquiry. It can help you sell shoes, put rockets into outer space, cure disease, or make better ice cream.

Results-Driven Teamwork: This one flows nicely from fast iteration. I don’t care if you are the smartest person in the room if you can’t work well with others. Even if you are the smartest person in the room, you still can’t get things done as quickly as a small team of people who are all reasonably smart. We used to time people playing a really difficult computer game that would take the average person about 40 hours to solve alone. Two people could solve it together in about 25 hours. Three people could solve it in about 10 hours. Four people could solve it in about 3 hours. Funny enough, adding more than four people created diminishing returns, which also brings its own learning. The point is there is exponential leverage in putting teams against projects to work together by exchanging ideas and challenging each other’s thinking to move at lightning speed past dead ends and serve up new ideas that can be vetted and recalculated with extraordinary results. Most complicated challenges in the workplace today are broken down and resolved by individuals sharing ideas and refining plans, not so much resolving design by committee as building consensus through collaboration. Software engineering is a good example of this, as libraries can be compiled from contributors all over the world, many of whom you might never meet in person. You can learn this skill participating in team sports, playing in an orchestra, performing in a play, or being on the debate team—anywhere you have to be great at what you are doing, but the whole result is beyond what you could do on your own. That’s today’s workplace, a collection of specialized talents interacting as an empowered collective.

Obviously this is not meant to be a comprehensive framework for anyone’s curriculum, but I think if you embrace concepts like these, you will put yourself on a path to being a lifelong learner. Make no mistake: If you want to be successful, learning only begins in school. What you most need to learn from formal instruction is how to continue your learning on the job and off the job. If you learn how to learn again and again, your core skills will never become obsolete because you will be continually replenishing them year after year. Remember also the intangible values and qualities you bring into the workforce are as or more important than your learned skills. Think resilience, perseverance, integrity, flexibility, openness, honesty, and a positive attitude. More than a prestigious diploma, what you need to take from school is the ability to think on your feet, work well with others, embrace nonstop change, and never consider your learning mission complete.