Too Rushed To Know Where We’re Going

Job descriptions often call for individuals possessing a “strong bias for action”. Businesses almost always need more execution-focused employees.

So it is natural that we shape the way we talk and interact with co-workers according to this ideal.  One way we portray ourselves as driven by an urgency to act is to speak in simple and punchy generalizations that help summarize massive amounts of information and make it look as though the path forward, what should be done in response to the information, was almost obvious.

Sometimes the path forward is clear, but not always. At least once a year, if not once a quarter, we need to practice the discipline of self-doubt, questioning, putting it all on the table. Deconstruction is one of the most constructive things I do personally and professionally. 

Our company culture asks us to move quickly, especially during difficult times, but we also tend to make hasty generalizations and decisions simply because we’re sitting in a meeting full of puzzled looks and someone has to step forward and cast a vision for the road ahead.

And that vision usually starts with some pretty big assertions about the company, competition and the market context:

“We’re the kind of company that…and not the kind that…”
“X is what we do best, we have to stick to X…”
“Our competition is doing A, but we have to do B better and more efficiently”

But because they are so far-reaching and simple, generalizations can cover much more important and complex internal and external environmental factors that should be factored into our strategy.

It’s important we’ve thought deeply about those generalizations ahead of time and in great detail. Yes, we have to speak concisely and make blanket statements. But had better do our homework beforehand.

That’s where deconstruction comes into play.  Not everyone has the patience for it, but good leaders must thrive off of it.  The only way to refresh your strategy is to have the ability to pull it apart and see it for what it is. Without maintenance, the machine becomes obsolete, fragmented, confused and falls apart.

Action determines whether we move forward, but strategy determines where we’ll end up. So which is more urgent?

Revise, Improve or Hold?

Revise, Improve or Hold?We all have our defaults, some more cemented than others.

It seems that one of the most common defaults we all have is how we respond to challenges.  The three default responses tend to be either: revise, improve or hold.

The problem is, our preferred way of tackling a challenge is not always the best response.  As a universal rule, any one of these on its own would be disastrous. 

Constantly revising the fundamentals is a recipe for insanity. Constantly striving to improve things that are inherently finite in their capacity for improvement will drive you crazy too (while wasting a lot of your time). Clinging to the obsolete breeds mindless, mechanistic stagnation.

So what would happen if we embraced each situation on its own merits, soberly and patiently facing its unique attributes?

If we were to discipline ourselves to practice such delicate respect for nuance, we would see entire industries revolutionized. If we approached our own lives with this level of care, what then?

Walls: A Pattern for Healthy Organizations

There are a limited set of life-creating patterns that must be followed for systems and the people within them to thrive.

One of these patterns is walls, without which it is impossible to maintain the complex relational harmony among successive internal layers.

In an ecosystem, an organism, a cell, a building design, or an org structure, there are smaller, more nuanced and specific groups the further down you go. Groups are formed and hold together by distinct delineations (walls) of where one ends and another begins. 

This is a continuation of a previous post in which I touched on how cells retain a distinct membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

Utility of Walls

In a healthy cell, the necessary and beneficial ingredients needed for their function are kept in, while useless or harmful stuff is kept out. The term for this is selective permeability.

Cell membranes keep stuff that is too big from entering the cell.  That is to say, an effective team doesn’t intake a resource, function or responsibility that exceeds its size. The membrane also regulates frequency. How often do we fail to standardize and control what comes in and out of our business units?

Not only that, cells contain channels and transporters that actually have fairly specific molecules they are designed to pass in and out of the cell. If you can’t do it well or you are not “shaped” to take on the task, decline emphatically.  If you are ideally designed for the job, stop at nothing until you get it.

Aligning scope/scale/frequency and core competencies with inputs and outputs are the essential decision points for any healthy cell establishing its role within a system. Agility is impossible without this level of focused selection.

But so far I’ve mostly pointed out the utility of the cell membrane. The cell is only in the crudest sense like a machine.  Let’s not forget: machines imitate cells, not the other way around. By my analogy of the cell I am actually suggesting something much deeper than controlled systems.

Life Creating Properties of Walls

The cell membrane also creates a local environment for direct and rapid exchange.  Even in a business context, this is more than just the passage of information.

Having a defined functional, structural, financial, cultural and even spatially defined limit to your team is a critical pre-condition to feeling psychologically oriented as individuals and united as a group.

This directly impacts our motivation, focus and outputs. Place matters and the organization as a whole must support and respect these boundaries, giving teams the right to keep out inactionable meetings, unfocused conference calls, irrelevant metrics, wasteful spending, rabbit trails, meaningless corporate speak, bureaucratic sloth, pet projects and so on.

My central observation is that, for a group of individuals to produce life, to create a sort of musical harmony, to create unique and irreducibly complex instances of life, they absolutely must be selective, located, centered, protected, walled in.  

In one post I can’t possibly exhaust the analogy, but I hope I’ve touched on some aspects that invite your imagination. This post is more a scratch pad of clustered observations.

If you are intrigued as I am with the magic that happens with life is allowed to flourish at a small scale within a broader system, consider strong emergence theory in this context for future reflection on the magic of protecting teams. Christopher Alexander elaborates on the application of boundaries, walls, transition areas and centers to designing cities, building, homes and all sorts of spaces in A Pattern Language. It’s quite a fascinating work.

Lychnaspis Miranda; one of Haeckel’s incredible drawings of Radiolaria.