I was driving along the 401 highway the other week and, surprisingly, I was driving along a portion of the highway where it was actually possible to go the speed limit. Now perhaps because myself and other drivers were a bit excited that we were actually able to go faster than gridlock usually allows, most people were going slightly above the posted limit. That pace came to a screeching halt a few kilometers down the road when a new vehicle entered the fray—a vehicle with lights on its hood and an emblem on its door.
The appearance of the police cruiser and the subsequent adherence to the speeding limit by all of those in the cruiser’s vicinity made me think about the most effective means of getting compliance. It’s undeniable that the presence of that police cruiser was a very effective way to reduce everyone’s speed to the posted limit. Very effective until the police cruiser turned off the highway and everyone resumed their previous speed. If the only way to ensure drivers’ compliance to the posted speed limits is the presence of police, it’s easy to see that police resources would quickly get eaten up just patrolling the highways.
If drivers are constantly exceeding the speed limits and have no other motivation to slow down than the fear of getting a speeding ticket, drivers will always exceed the limits if they don’t see any police around. It got me thinking about the recent debate over Melissa Meyer’s controversial decision to ban remote working at Yahoo. While her intentions seem to be related to encouraging collaboration and sharing (both quite integral to the tech industry), many shifted the focus of this announcement to a debate about whether or not remote workers have the ability to be productive without someone watching over them.
If you feel the only way your staff are productive is when they have someone watching them and keeping them in line, then you will likely bear witness (or, more aptly, not bear witness) to those same employees becoming Mario Andretti when you have your back turned.
Well, it happened. I knew it was coming, but it happened sooner than I thought. My 2.5 year old mastered the question “Why?” (as well as “Why not?” for those times when the answer is something can’t be done—delightful). Here is just a snippet of the many conversations I’ve had with my son this week that all ended up the same way:
Me: Okay, it’s time to go home.
Me: Well, pre-school is done and it’s close to your nap, so we need to go home.
Me: If we don’t go home, then we won’t be near your bed and then you won’t have your nap and then you will miss your nap. We can’t miss your nap.
Toddler: Why not?
Me: Because then you’ll be too tired to play with me and daddy later today when daddy gets home. (but really thinking: because mommy needs that time in the afternoon to do work)
While I’m sure any parent can relate to these want-to-tear-your-hair-out conversations with their children around this time, I realized that something very important happens during these conversations that grants me the patience (okay, sometimes grants me the patience) to indulge him. He’s learning. He’s learning a great deal by asking his questions. This is his inquisitive little mind’s way of making sense of the world around him and starting to understand cause and effect.
Whereas, in the conversation example above, I intuitively knew that if we didn’t go home right away, he could miss his nap and I would likely have a grumpy toddler on my hands. He’s still learning that whole process. And, it’s likely, as he masters the process and starts seeing the link between cause and effect, those questions will subside. But, contrary to my knee-jerk reaction of “stop asking ‘Why?’!”, I actually hope it’s not likely, and I truly hope he continues to be just as inquisitive throughout his life.
Sadly, that’s not usually so. How many of us still approach situations with that curious wonder of a toddler? I’m willing to bet not many of us. For the most part, it makes sense. We’ve figured out the answers already. We face so many situations in a day that we have to learn to streamline as much as possible to make the most of our 24 hours each day. However, how often are we not asking ‘Why?’ because we’re worried it will make us look dumb or unknowledgeable? How often do we not ask ‘Why?’ because we assume we know the answer or should know the answer? How often do we not ask 'Why?' because we really don't want to know the answer?
More often than naught, it’s the latter sentiments that get us in trouble. Asking ‘Why?’ over and over again can actually be a very effective exercise in effective decision making as well as post-mortem root cause analyses. However, they’re truly only effective if we go back to our toddler years and ask the question with unabashed, innocent curiosity. No pretense. No agenda. No defensiveness. Otherwise, you’re likely to have answered the question even before asking it. And that answer will likely fit more into the category of “because I said so” than anything that actually challenges your belief system and, more importantly, more resonant of the real answer.
Recently, I was doing one of my cross-country jaunts and was flipping through an edition of Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and came across an article about Kobe, Japan. In 1995, the city of 1.5 million people suffered a devastating earthquake that killed 4500 people and damaged or destroyed more than 120,000 buildings. In this time of tragedy and devastation, urban planners from around the country converged and appeared to have taken the words of Japanese philosopher Mizuta Masahide to heart: “My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.”
Today, Kobe is no longer the mishmash of utilitarian, drab buildings constructed during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, but an architectural marvel that is “inclusive, interactive, and ecological.”
All too often I have seen teams create an environment that fears failure to such an extent that the thing they were avoiding is the thing they become. At best, they become the drab buildings over time; at worst, they eventually create their own earthquakes, but are too paralyzed by their fears to learn from the failures and allow a stronger, more breathtaking phoenix to rise from the ashes.
Counter to popular belief, the opposite of success is not failure. A case could be made that the opposite of success is actually apathy (this leads us to a whole different discussion, which I’m sure I’ll cover in another post). In fact, success and failure often go hand in hand. Or, more appropriately, the learnings from failures breed success. The great basketball player Michael Jordan put it much more eloquently, “I’ve failed over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
How does your team deal with failure? Do they learn from it? Do they embrace failure or the adage, “Failure is not an option”? If it’s the latter, then ask yourself: what successes are you missing out on by avoiding the failures at all costs?
This past spring, we enrolled my two-year old son in a gymnastics class. Unfortunately, living in Toronto, space is a premium, so his gymnastics class was in a modified office building. Fortunately, he’s two, so even the small trampoline (remember those fitness ones from the eighties that were all the craze—the ones about two feet in diameter?) was still a big draw.
Since the class ended, he’s been able to keep up his practice in the off-season thanks to a trampoline we have set up at the cottage. While his initial thrills were rooted in getting a slight bounce with every step, his confidence has grown and he is looking for the bigger bounces—the ones that take him higher, but also risk him falling flat on his face. I noticed that we kept telling him he has to jump in the middle of the trampoline to go after those kinds of bounces. You need to go after the area with more give, more flexibility and a looser structure to get the higher bounce. I also realized that this holds true for most of the thrills and exhilaration we achieve in our work lives.
Operating in a structured, rigid environment is akin to jumping around the perimeter of the trampoline. You can still get some air, but it’s not going to give you that rush or that kind of bounce you need to try out new moves such as back flips (or, if you’re two, a jump that takes you higher than a few centimeters). It’s the centre of the trampoline where there is more flexibility, more give and more room to get the highest highs and the biggest bounces. While those on the perimeter might point out that the bigger the jump, the more likely it is that you fall flat on your face. Very true—we witnessed many face plants watching our son. But we also witnessed his bounces get higher and higher.
If you manage staff, are you asking for greatness and growth while containing them to the perimeter of the trampoline or encouraging them to jump in the middle?
Another Thanksgiving is upon us (for those in Canada), and it always provides a great opportunity for us reflect on what we're thankful for. Without a doubt, I am thankful for my in-laws who take on the annual Thanksgiving dinner, as it means I do not have to touch the innards of a turkey for yet another year.
My sister-in-law is the hostess with the most-est when it comes to our annual Thanksgiving dinners. Actually, I really need to give my brother-in-law credit, as he's often the grocery shopper and chef. She is the mistress of the decor, so the two of them make a perfect pair. But that's for a different post. They are so good, in fact, that we are often left wondering how we can contribute. Since the rest of the us don't want to feel like ungracious guests, we usually offer to bring token foods such as an appetizer or dessert. However, the past two years have taught us there is just as much value in coordination and communication as there is in giving.
Two years ago, everyone decided to bring dessert...without sharing this decision with everyone else. Hey, I'm not one to complain when a meal's desserts outnumber the mains, but the visual of five (yes, FIVE) pumpkin pies on the table highlighted the absurdity of the situation. You would think we would have learned by the time Thanksgiving rolled around last year. We learned. We just learned the wrong lesson. The lesson we took away--don't bring pumpkin pie because everyone else is going to bring pumpkin pie. That was the lesson we took away, anyway. Well, that was also the lesson everyone else took away. So you can probably guess what happened. Last year's Thanksgiving featured a delicious meal, but left everyone with only memories of the pile of pies and our sweet teeth unfulfilled.
So how does this relate to business? Think about the last time your team made a mistake or something didn't go well. Did you talk about it? Did you diagnose what happened? Did you discuss what needs to happen the next time you encounter the same situation (In our case, coordinating and communicating who will be bringing what the next time)? Or did you just take it for granted that everyone recognized the mistake and knows what to do next time? If your team continues to have too many pies or none at all, perhaps it's time to discuss, come to a consensus, and coordinate.
Happy Thanksgiving to our Canadian readers! May you get just enough pie.