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?

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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.

Yes, Philosophy is Practical.


The single most common question I get about my choice to study Philosophy is whether it is practical: “What do you do with that?”

My answer is – EVERYTHING.

Philosophy is a tool, but more than that, it is a more deliberate and deliberative way of using other mental faculties.

What exactly does Philosophy offer us?

  • Philosophy guides, organizes and disciplines our curiosity
  • Philosophy prompts us to ask about the nature of our world and how things work
  • Philosophy exposes our subjective bias and protects us from making hasty decisions
  • Philosophy helps us become more virtuous people (we need all the help we can get)
  • Philosophy trains us to constantly ask, “How could I approach this differently and do it better?”

With such obvious benefits, how could we not all choose to pursue Philosophy at some level?

Yes, there are those who think that perpetually playing the devil’s advocate and making snarky remarks is what philosophy is really about. There is no love of wisdom in that.

Real philosophy gets stuff done.

Iterative Genius


Genius comes through gradual, focused iterations.  It is not necessarily a static property. Genius is in motion.

Like all virtues, genius is achieved through constant practice.  It is simply the optimizing of our capacity of discovery and experimentation through a set of habits.

Scientific method looks at the bare process of genius-like behavior, yet is too cold to capture the human quality that makes this process alive.

In addition to a scientific method, perhaps we need a scientific ethos to invigorate our cold dehumanizing modern approach to genius.

Curiosity, focus, persistence, honesty, thoroughness and even a love for beauty – these are the habits that distinguish a genius from a mere technical expert or mad scientist.

Once we have recast the way of the genius in a more familiar light, we can begin to see the psychological imperative of cultivating gradual, iterative genius.

Work as Human Flourishing


It is a tragic thing to show up to work merely out of necessity.

There are brute realities of survival involved in why we must work. There are bigger realities, however, behind why we want to work.

I am not under the delusion that we can love all the objective/external aspects of our workplace.  There will always be mundane tasks, politics and difficult people.

But it is quite another thing entirely to enjoy the mental and physical exertion of working, the social participation in a team, the tackling of a daunting challenge, and the motivational reward of progress. Honest, hard work forces us to confront our own vices and replaces them with virtues; these virtues bring us personal and relationship depth.

These mysterious internal motivators exist in us, even though they may be obstructed by external barriers or latent due to lack of opportunity. I suppose in this sense I’m an optimist about human nature.

The aspects of most of our workplaces will, realistically, continue to make business less human, personal and enriching. Machines are convenient and eventually, cost-effective; humanity is messy. In a free market, machines will take over simply because companies need to adopt and advance technology to remain competitive.

It’s true that we’ll need creative and abstract analysis and specialized skills will always be needed; but the opportunity for these positions will be more competitive and only open to a small percentage of the total workforce. In this sense, I’m a pessimist about the conditions humans tend to create. Seemingly contradictory stances, I understand.  But that’s another discussion.

Even if you can’t love what you do, for the sake of your soul, never stop trying to love how you do it.

Curve Balls


Curve Ball
I always hated curve balls. I think this was primarily because I didn’t want to break out of the comfort zone of my particular habits, stance and swing, which worked wonders on fast balls, sliders, split fingers, and the rest.

You’re forced to focus and adapt quickly to respond to the precise movements of the ball as it hisses towards you.  There is this dizzy sensation the moment you realize the ball is moving in an unexpected and deceptive direction; it’s almost hypnotizing.

It was because of my dislike for the curve ball that I stopped developing my skill as a baseball player.  I struggled through the end of my sixth year playing and then quit.  Now I can be a little more understanding of my younger self. I was 13 and short for my age, forced to advance to the 16+ league, so I definitely had the odds stacked against me.

Even so, that unfortunate lesson stuck with me. I couldn’t be proud of shrinking back from a daunting challenge.

No matter how many times you’ve seen them, curve balls look a little unique every time.  An unexpected budget cut, a project for which you lack essential skills, an aggressive up-and-coming competitor, or a seemingly unattainable goal imposed by senior management.  With each curve ball, there’s the terrible feeling of the unfamiliar, the unknown.

But after a while you gain a paradoxical confidence that is able to exist alongside the feeling of unpreparedness and anxiety.  Thanks to the great example of many leaders, friends and family in my life, I’ve gradually changed my perspective.  I can now welcome curve balls because they break my mental habits of maintaining the status quo, contradict my inflated sense of expertise, and challenge me to take risks. 

When you approach the plate eager for a new challenge, I think there comes a really healthy sense of pride.  This attitude is good for career development, but really, it’s also practice for life, for virtue and for conquering the deeper personal challenges we all face, both externally and internally.  That’s something to take pride in.

So next time you see an over-eager, slightly hubris-driven achiever leaping at a chance to be thrown in the middle of a project for which they are obviously under-qualified, don’t simply write him or her off as mere opportunists looking to advance their career.  Chances are, they’d love it if you jumped in with them.  You’ll be glad you did.