A good reminder that I married the right person is that he agrees to go to a talk about catastrophic failure in complex systems for date night. This week, Anthony and I heard Andras Tilcsik and Chris Clearfield give an overview of their new book: ‘Meltdown: When Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It’.
It’s a fascinating look at how many of the systems we encounter in our day to day lives are becoming increasingly complex and tightly coupled, making them more vulnerable to surprising meltdowns.
Life is a series of trade-offs. Helpfully, life has continued to remind me of this fact (thanks life), despite it being something I should know well by now. One way to explain this concept is the Four Burners Theory. Have you heard of it?
Essentially it asks you to envision your life as a stovetop, with the four burners representing your health, work, family, friends respectively. As James Clear writes:
“The Four Burners Theory says that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”
The word ‘journey’ should probably only be used if you’re talking about how someone got to the Olympics, or to Mordor. And yet I’m using it here because I’ve been thinking about the rhetoric and reality of change and transformation.
I remember the first time a manager asked me for advice on how to train one of their employees to “manage up”. This kind of question is my favourite part of working in HR. It’s like overhearing a fascinating snippet of conversation as you pass a dinner table at a restaurant and then trying to figure out the topic under discussion*.
What the heck does ‘managing up’ mean? I mean, I know what I think it means. But more importantly, what the heck does it mean to you, the manager on the other end of the phone? What unmet need or unarticulated frustration lies behind the request to HR to suggest how you can make someone on your team understand how to manage you, their manager? Let’s backtrack to explore the winding path that led to this moment, when you are asking me for a book** I can suggest for your employee to read on ‘managing up’.
Culture. It keeps coming up in the conversations I’m having with HR professionals about sexual harassment right now. After writing about sexual harassment last year and launching a related project for 2018, I’m having a lot of these conversations at the moment.
We should talk about culture when we talk about sexual harassment (which I would like us all to be doing right now, with a new humility and curiosity), as long as we’re doing so in ways that are actionable and specific. It’s far too easy for ‘culture’ to be used as shorthand for “I don’t know why, but that’s the way things are here”.
I am a messy desk person. I always have been a messy desk person, and at this point I think I always will be a messy desk person.
This fact always seems to come as a surprise to colleagues and friends. “But you seem so organized!” they exclaim, in a tone that makes it clear I’ve just revealed something disappointing and mildly shameful about myself. I am quite organized, but it’s always interesting to see how the state of my desk causes people to question this assessment of me.
I get it. Messy is not a characteristic we aspire to. At best, we consider it a quality of someone who’s childish or careless; at worst, a sign of madness. Mary Kondo took this to the bank.
I am currently re-reading ‘Thinking in Systems: A Primer’ by Donella Meadows, a book that had a big impact on me the first time I read it. This time around, it reminded me of the Doom Loop.
A Doom Loop, aside from being an exceptionally good name for your next band, is the label attached to a reinforcing feedback loop in a system. A loop in which the selected solutions simply worsen the underlying problem. A vicious cycle, in other words.
This week I read that about 70% of US managers are afraid to talk to their employees. This produced a series of conflicting thoughts:
- I sort of sympathize. I want to avoid talking to anyone about 70% of the time, so #twinsies, you know?
- It also deserves a big eye roll because REALLY? WHAT DID THEY THINK BEING A MANAGER WAS ABOUT??
- But really, so what? They’ll mostly be replaced by AI soon anyway.
- Also, I’m not really surprised since like most HR people, I’ve had an otherwise capable person physically deposit a crying employee in my office as though they were a mogwai that got fed after midnight (Google it, Millennials!)
A major challenge of talking about something as complex as culture is that we have to be reductive to be succinct. Something as layered, nuanced, and invisible would take ages to accurately convey (if we could even put it into words), but often, we try to distill it into a soundbite. A few key words or phrases that we think make our organization distinct from the average company.
“Keep learning. Explore crazy ideas”
“The Customer is Not Always Right”
“Warrior Spirit; Servant’s Heart, Fun-luving Attitude” (Note: Guys, I just found out these are actually Southwest Airlines’ values and I can’t even)
Although most organizations talk about their cultures as being unique and monolithic (that is, consistent throughout the organization, which is often an unstated assumption underlying the practice of hiring for ‘culture fit’), this is rarely the case.
Adaptive. Agile. Responsive.
Whether you believe that the world is changing faster than ever or not, I suspect there is near-universal agreement among leaders that organizations must become more nimble to succeed.
However, as is often the case, the desire for an organization to be something different seems to be strangely disconnected from the doing it will entail at the individual level. That is to say, adaptive and agile sound like fantastic destinations when considered in isolation from the daily practices required to get us there.