I’ve worked in just about every kind of company there is—solo consulting & Walmart, for-profit & non-profit, product & service, local & global, good & bad & ugly—and there are two things that are true no matter the size, shape or stripe: It’s all uphill, and no one knows what is going to happen.
It’s All Uphill
Work is hard. Business is hard. Surviving is hard. Thriving is hard. Life is hard. I don’t mean this to be depressing. I mean it is true. There are just some laws of the universe you cannot escape. Systems tend toward entropy. People tend toward self-interest. Put those two things together, and you have a situation that requires us to every day get up and make two decisions.
First, we have to decide if we are going to make things better (since they get worse on their own). It is endlessly surprising to me the ways in which things can go wrong; comical really, but my sense of humor tends to find things to laugh at in just about every situation. It keeps me sane.
But I digress. See? Everything digresses.
Everything wears out, wears down, stops working. For some reason. The system is just wired that way. I’m not trying to get into the philosophy of it, I’m just saying I’ve observed that there is a fine coat of dust on my desk even though I work indoors in a brand new office. There’s dust. And it is not dusting itself.
And so, we are back to that decision: are we going to make things better today? Are we going to put back the things that got out of whack? Are we going to progress that hard project that is staring us in the face? Are we going to call that person we are avoiding for some reason? Are we going to sit down and dig into why we are hurt/angry/scared about that situation? If we don’t then no one else is going to either.
Second decision to make today is if we are going to be self-interested. It’s our default setting, I’m convinced. Wait, is it just me? Yeah, it is for sure mine. When the pressure is on, this introvert can pull back into self-protection quickly. It takes effort to get outside of myself and make sure that I am making things better for everyone else.
But this is the job of a leader: to ensure that everyone knows where they are going, why they are going there, and they have what they need to get there. No one is going to tell them if you and I don’t. Well, one of the team might step up and do it, but then we are not leading. Leadership isn’t about us, it’s about them. We have to put systems and reminders in place to ensure that we are leading them.
Of course, I do have to lead and manage myself as well. If I am not healthy, focused, attentive, then I’m not going to be very good at leading anyone anywhere except into a ditch. I’m always trying to monitor how I am doing. Am I healthy physically and emotionally? If not, then why not and what can I change immediately in order to get back on track? Because as I go, so goes the team. That humbling thought keeps me on my toes and working every day to ensure I am on top of it so they can be on top of it. I wish I could tell you I’m amazing at this, but it turns out, I’m human and flawed and learning, and I have a hunch this is going to be one of those things I just have to keep working at.
So, that’s our two questions we have to answer every day in order to keep moving forward, up this challenging hill of life and business: Am I going to make things better? Am I going to be (only) self-interested?
No One Knows What Will Happen
If we answer these two questions every day, then everything will keep moving upward and to the right; everything in your life will continue to improve; your health, your business, your relationships, your finances; everything just keeps getting better if we are perfectly vigilant, right?
The truth is that we have no idea what today or tomorrow will bring. Even more than this, we can do everything right and still the economy can collapse, we can get that diagnosis from the doctor, our spouse or partner can just up and leave. There is not a magic formula. There is not a way to predict the future. There is no guarantee. This doesn’t mean that we quit. This means that all the more, we need to be in a good spot when the unexpected comes about. Because the unexpected is not always bad.
Most of the massive changes in life are discontinuities that we don’t see coming and we can only see the patterns of prediction way after the fact. It’s easy in retrospect, but in the moment, it is impossible to determine what is signal and what is noise. When the pressure is on and we are just trying to make the two decisions above and also have to decision what direction to go based on incomplete information? Yeah, it’s hard enough to predict in the best of times, and impossible in the moment.
So, what should we do?
I don’t know what you should do, but I can tell you what we do. It’s a very simple formula:
- We consider everything we know to consider.
- We make the best decision we can with the information we have.
- We design small, simple tests to see if these decisions will work.
- We scale up the one that shows promise.
- We optimize it if it keeps working.
- We go back to the drawing board when it stops working.
- We repeat as often as needed.
We don’t know another way. We don’t know what is going to work in our lives and our businesses. So, we try and get out all the options we can think of — we look for others who are smart in those areas so they can help us as well — once it is all on the table, we don’t get paralyzed, we go with what we think is the best decisions because we are just going to do a small test anyway. If it works, then we scale it. If it doesn’t work, then we try something else. We do all of this in quick repetition.
This formula serves as a hedge against great big gambles that sink the ship. It helps us manage risk. It keeps us agile and aware that big disruptions are inevitable. We think this discipline in the organization is what helps us respond to them quickly.
Organizationally, this is hard. It is the process we commit to in the same way that we personally have to answer the two questions every day. Together, we believe that it helps us make progress more often than not, and every now and then, something works really really well. But you just never know what or when. And don’t believe anyone who tells you any different. Especially not me.