In praise of the anti-curator

Every organization needs a little bit of time and talent to stop, look, and notice what is going on.

Geoff Wilson

I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently that sparked a thought.

My friend is preparing for a 500-plus mile solo hike on the Camino de Santiago.  A veteran of these sorts of hikes, he explained to me that his mode of walking was to be fully aware of his surroundings…meaning he didn’t listen to music or indulge in other distractions along the way.  He related a story about a prior long hike that involved a companion who had a similar philosophy of situational awareness.

That companion, he explained to me was a great noticer.  He related how she found a wild orchid on the path that he (claimed) he would never have noticed because it just wasn’t in his nature.

And, that brings me to the thought…

Our modern, western, techno-lives deliver us into a fantastically automated and increasingly curated world.  Our privilege is the ability to put our heads down, focus on what’s directly in front of us, and miss everything else around us because the systems around us are designed to deliver to us the typically right answer or the safe answer.

But, it’s not always the fulfilling or creative answer.  It’s the closest-to-the-pin, least likely to hurt answer.  I wrote on this a couple years ago in a post entitled Come On, Feel the Noise! where I wanted us all to question whether infinite stability is a good thing.

That’s because curators (and by this, I mean anybody feeding you information based on what typical people do) have to have some “typical” data stream to go on.  And their data stream is highly dependent on what others did.

Curators, in other words and to extend from the hiking story above, are the path.  They cannot leave the path.

Sometimes, you need to ensure you have a few noticers around you.  These are people who appreciate that you are following a path, but who have the presence of mind to watch out for the occasional uplifting opportunity that might branch from the path.  They are the ones who actually illuminate the road less traveled.

They are, in a way, anti-curators.  They break the “typical” and push you to see what might be outside of your inertia.

Maybe you need a few anti-curators around you.

What do you think? 

 

 

Where heroes go to die

For 95 percent of your business, it’s best to put your heroes in the graveyard.

Geoff Wilson

Meet Sam.

Sam is a hero.  She probably lives in your organization.  She’s the one that “gets things done.”

Product not getting shipped?  Sam is the one on the dock.

Work not getting done on time in the drafting room? Sam has uncanny ability to pitch in and get things over the goal line.

Individuals not delivering their work packages on time in general?  Sam will step in, re-cast the process, lay out for the pass, and ensure that the deadline is met.

Sam knows–or at least is known by–the CEO.  Sam has made a living out of making her bosses look great. The people around Sam may not like Sam that much because of how hard Sam works and/or how much Sam pitches in to do their job, but the reality is that Sam has probably saved them from being fired countless times.

Sam delivers. Sam is a hero.

And, in 95 percent of businesses that I know, the need for Sam’s heroism is a problem.

Why?

Because heroism makes for good beer-drinking stories and for really awful business.  It covers up for bad processes.  It lulls bosses into a false sense of security because “we are always on time” when, in reality, processes are broken, and people are left in tatters by the heroic culture.

It also creates single points of failure.  That is, if the hero gets hit by the proverbial bus, the entire system reverts to chaos.  Chaos is not good.  Your best bet in building a strategically sound business is to eliminate chaos where humanly possible. And, that means (oddly enough) eliminating heroism–the ultimate cover for chaos.  I believe that to be possible in about 95 percent of business processes.  The other 5%?  Those are where we all deal with uncontrollable variables like last minute changes in customer preferences or mercurial executives.  For those, I love heroes.

For the rest?  Use your heroes as indicators of opportunity, not as indicators of success.  Know that an effort at the strategic renewal of your company through thoughtful planning and strategic focus should be a place where heroes go to die.

But beware, because the Sams of the world can turn toxic when it comes to putting a bullet in heroism.  In general, heroes really hate business improvement.  Heroes like Sam often (not always) create job security and ego-stroking visibility through their ability to lay out for the pass.  Heroes often hate it when processes are re-evaluated.  They are the first to bring up terms like bureaucracy and waste of time.  They are the ones who (rightfully) will focus everyone around them on the results, but when everyone around them stops to say “let’s fix the process,” they might say “no thanks, I’m going to go get some more results.”  Sam may be rightfully focused on results (I applaud her), but she may also be protecting a virtual fiefdom of heroism when it comes to opting out of the nearer term process fix.

That, my friends, is ultimately not scalable.  And, that can be toxic.  Sam’s a hero, but toxic Sam is merely another form of a high-performing corporate narcissist.

My advice?  If your heroes live anywhere outside of sales or otherwise in direct interactions with your customer, find a way to put them in the graveyard.  In your strategic efforts, take the to the place where heroes go to die.

What do you think?

 

 

The things you leave behind

The toughest part of business strategy is choice.

Geoff Wilson

We live in a fantastically privileged time and I live in a fantastically privileged place.  When thinking about taking a journey with my family, I am rarely, if ever, really constrained by my capacity to carry things along with me.  A large SUV and a few containers and attachments that my family of six has accumulated over the years have made sure of that.

But, those who take serious journeys in the real world know what it’s like to deal with constraints on a journey. On a hike of hundreds of miles that might cover tens of thousands of feet of elevation change, the difference between carrying a 5-pound sleeping bag and a 2-pound one can be the difference between a comfortable hike and terminal fatigue or injurious fall.

In other words, how we deal with the constraints around us can be defining, and if we aren’t careful, we can become numb to the fact that constraints do still exist.

Your business will be defined by choices.  Those choices might be purposeful, or they might be passive.  Still, you will make choices.  Those choices will come in the form of positive choices about “what we will do,” and negative choices about “what we will not do.”

Positive choices are a call to action. They point the way.

Negative choices are a call to create capacity.  They explain how we will create focus.

But, if we aren’t careful, we can become numb. We can let profitability (which is like a large SUV…it allows you to carry many things) mask overburden or distraction, and those things can crush us when the economy turns.  We make many positive choices, and we avoid the negative choices.  We decide not to decide on what to leave behind.  Because, well, that’s hard.

And, there’s risk in that.  Because, like in the hike I outlined above, a failure to make choices on what to leave behind can be the difference between a comfortable success and a painful failure.

Those choices might be about which customers to fire.

Or employees.

Or markets to exit.

Or businesses.

Or assets to shed.

Or brands.

Or meetings to cancel.

Or trips.

Or products to eliminate.

Or partners.

What you leave behind can be as defining to your strategy, and your well being, as what you take with you.  Don’t forget it. The journey is long.  Pack for it the right way.