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

Embrace Turbulence

How many really bad things can go wrong in business in a single day? One or two? Five? Dozens? Dozens of dozens?

A key employee leaves because a spouse is offered a job a thousand miles away.

A key partner botches a supply chain handoff and your warehouse is empty ahead of an annual sale.

You discover a critical hidden formula error in one of your financial spreadsheets that even your auditors missed.

Your customer service lines light up for a problem with your competitor’s product being confused for your own.

Sound like a normal enough day?

Then why do we think of turbulence as extraordinary?

Maybe a better question is how many things can go right in a day. Sometimes if you achieve one modest success you count your blessings and call that an outstanding day! A win is the welcomed exception. Problems are the norm.

Just remember one of the key maxims in career longevity: If you’re a manager, problems are job security. If there weren’t problems in business, we wouldn’t need management. Lucky for us, huh?

I was recently talking with a colleague about his desire to offer calm to his staff after a rough few weeks. He wanted to give a talk where his message and tone signaled that the bad stuff was behind them.

I advised against it. How could he possibly know what fate might bring even later that afternoon. You never want to make a liar out of yourself with stuff you can’t control. Besides, the very notion of calm to me signals surrender.

What is the stuff you can control? Attitude, anticipation, and readiness.

It’s a question of urgency over fear. Fear in the form of debilitating anxiety may not be your friend, but urgency in the form of nimble responsiveness is always your friend. There is so little in our future that we can control, pretending it is otherwise is advancing the clock on the certainty of smack down.

Complacency lets down your guard. Predictive, proactive realism keeps you sharp at all times.

How many times have I heard hardworking but tired employees utter the phrase: “If only we can get through this [fill in the blank], we’ll be fine.”

Remember this instead: The reward for getting over a hill is the opportunity to climb another hill. There is always another this to get through. Beyond each valley is always another hill, often steeper and higher than the one behind you. That is the nature of economic cycles. That is the nature of problem-solving. Whatever you solve today may create an opportunity, but the market response to that opportunity will likely create the next problem on your plate.

It’s no different for capital and equity markets, where despite our hope for smooth sailing, volatility is the norm. That’s why for so many stock picking is a loser’s game. You’re in for all the good and bad days or you’re out.

What to do then?

Embrace turbulence before it becomes turmoil.

Make turbulence your constant companion. Celebrate small wins, but never be fooled by a quiet few hours. Once you are comfortable with the inevitability of unpredictability, your confidence level will rise. You will learn to address change because you accept the inarguable market force that change is constant.

A good sales quarter is always exciting, but as every prospectus states, past performance is no guarantee of future results. You know that like you know your boss’s ugliest shirt. Why pretend otherwise?

Did AOL fall on hard times or fail to respond to turbulence?

Did Yahoo suffer an explainable devastating blow or wander aimlessly amid turbulence?

Did Kodak get ambushed by new technology or fail to play its strongest hand in a climate of turbulence?

Each of those companies allowed turbulence to become turmoil. When turmoil escalates to the unbound, creative destruction has usually made its decision.

Think about what those implosions mean to you.

Did the last project that didn’t go your way take you down or prepare you to outperform it?

Did your last failed product launch demoralize you or teach you how to make a better product?

Are you looking for comfort in the quiet ordinary or comfort in outrageous curiosity?

Big Company Syndrome is believing your paycheck will always show up. Smart Company Syndrome is knowing you have to earn your keep every day. Doing work and adding value are not the same things.

Turbulence in business is the norm, not the exception. Companies that win do so because they surf over, around and through turbulence. They might purposefully avoid an obvious storm they can’t navigate, but they expect storms, they don’t anticipate their magical elimination.

In daily business dealings, if you know that bombs are regularly going to drop, you won’t be surprised when they do, no matter from where. If you’re a CEO or close to one, you know it’s the job of leadership to address crises, not to hope they will slink away.

Make peace with turbulence. Pace yourself for a ceaselessly bumpy endurance contest. Expect an unruly rollercoaster ride and be mildly pleased the days it doesn’t throw you from the train.

When you have one of those good days—and you will—you will appreciate it even more. Your definition of a good day may also begin to change. Mine certainly has. Stay tuned to this channel for how.

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Image: Pixabay