Tao of the Zentropist

June 4, 2013

The Business Case for Uncertainty

For many people, and many business entities, the notion of uncertainty is one fraught with anxiety, if not outright fear, and is the cause for many sleepless nights and oftentimes ill-conceived attempts to “manage” the uncertainty.  While this is understandable, it is also a mistake, because fundamentally, we often have limited control and influence over the environment in which we operate, and there are lessons to be gleaned and improvements to be made at a personal and often organizational level in dealing with the very chaos and unexpected outcomes which unfold in the act of living our lives and running a business.

WHY UNCERTAINTY IS NOT NECESSARILY THE ENEMY

It would seem axiomatic that if we knew with absolute certainty what the outcome of any process or sequence of events would be, we would be assured of success each and every time we repeated the same actions in the same order. Arguably, one of the primary reasons to develop process or to codify certain actions in a planned sequence is an effort to ensure a repeatable and consistent result which is viewed as desirable. And when it comes to manufacturing a product or implementing a service, this is a worthwhile and necessary goal. But we also know from life experience that defects and deficiencies will arise despite best efforts, and the outcomes will not always be exactly as intended or expected. Call it Chaos theory or the Butterfly Effect, but what we find is that nature rarely presents us with absolutes, and predictability can be highly elusive.

We should acknowledge that uncertainty often drives innovation, because it tends to enforces discipline and a rational (or at least focused) analysis of a situation in order to try and influence outcomes in a predictable fashion. This can lead to new breakthroughs and new efficiencies arising from the willingness to adapt and acknowledgement via robust contingency planning that not all variables may be within our control.

Uncertainty leads to adaptability and refinement of process because of the innate desire to shape outcomes. Determining what actions to take, along with when and in what order in order to arrive at a particular result is the raison d’être for process to exist. And when a process does not reliably produce intended results, it is natural to make changes to see if the fault lies in the approach itself rather than some outlying factor(s).

If we accept that systems are in a state of dynamic flux, we are more apt to be open to continuous evolution and improvement, because we understand that maintaining stasis is not an option; if we attempt to do so, we will be superseded or eventually rendered obsolescent.

EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY

So if we cannot eliminate uncertainty completely, and at best can only seek to mitigate it, how can we best embrace it? In part, we must at times be willing to divorce ourselves from the purely emotional reactions to dealing with situations which do not turn out as expected or desired in order to understand whether partial or full fault lies in the process or actions undertaken up to that point. We must be willing to experiment and try new approaches to see if this leads to solutions which in turn produce more consistent results. Furthermore, we are reminded that if we are willing to ask “What if…?” we may discover previously overlooked opportunities and find competitive advantages that can serve us well.

We can have our preferences, but we cannot always be assured of them materializing exactly as envisioned. Only by coming to terms with uncertainty can we truly reach a state where we are prepared and sufficiently motivated to deal with it in an effective manner.

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February 16, 2012

The Cult of “Me”

The Digital Age has brought us many benefits, including a near ubiquitous mode of communication, and with those benefits, it has also unleashed the floodgates. Never before in the recorded history of humanity have so many had so much to say, yet amid the ensuing cacophony and din, one can’t help but observe that many, and perhaps most, have nothing original to say, opinions (informed or otherwise) masquerade as fact, and few take the time and effort to listen.

Ours perhaps is not the First Age of Shameless Self-Promotion, but it may very well be the most far reaching, and the narcissists among us cannot help but bend their knee or even throw themselves prostrate as they worship for all to see before the Cult of Me.

IN A WORLD OF EXPERTS…

Modern life in industrialized societies moves at a blistering pace, and few of us have to be told that competition among even the well skilled and qualified for desirable jobs and clients can be quite fierce. Social media outlets such as LinkedIn have created new channels of connection and networking, and even a cursory review of user profiles will also reveal a proliferation of individuals who boast of impressive accomplishments and skills, yet if you start to scratch beneath the surface, the substance and even veracity starts to come into question.

Photo courtesy of iStock

The Internet seems to encourage and foster the notion that we live in a world of experts, yet somehow conveniently overlooked is that many of these experts are self-proclaimed, and therefore suspect. Malcolm Gladwell has famously commented upon the “10,000 Hour Rule” which suggests that one becomes an expert at a task by practicing it for 10,000 hours. There’s likely some element of truth to this, although a corollary which should not be overlooked is that one must practice well and thoroughly for those “10,000 hours” and ideally is receiving real-world feedback, particularly from those more adept at the given task. For example, as Chief Instructor Eyal Yanilov of Krav Maga Global once remarked to me when we were discussing the process of mastery in the martial arts, there’s a big difference between the practitioner who trains hard, consistently and constantly for 20 years, and the one who has flitted from one thing to the next for 20 years. They both may have been “at it” for 20 years, but one is arguably an expert while the other is generally at best partially trained and at worst a dilettante.

LEADERS BEWARE

Those in leadership positions, particularly when the individuals are in actuality far more “managerial” in nature  and capability (i.e. those who delegate and more often than not cannot execute) than “visionary” and “inspiring” can be especially susceptible to self-aggrandizement and over-confidence, particularly when it is not warranted. The ranks of Corporate America and even start-up environments are filled with people convinced of their own brilliance and aptitude, or doing their best to convey this image to others. Sometimes those in positions of responsibility mistake success and/or competency in one particular endeavor to convey upon them universal wisdom and knowledge and therefore fail to actually listen to or learn from others, particularly if they feel somehow challenged or threatened by colleagues, particularly subordinates.

We’ve all seen people try to “fake it” and be something, or someone, they simply are not. It’s instructional to witness, for example, an individual with an inflated title, and an unjustifiably high opinion of his own capabilities and worth, pose questions (which reveal striking ignorance and lack of resourcefulness) to colleagues which readily could have been answered with a Google search on the computer within comfortable reach. The fact that this individual wasn’t embarrassed to be doing so was remarkable.

IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF…

Perhaps the observations above brook the question, “If self-promotion is wrong, am I to remain modest and potentially invisible?” I would counter that this is a false dichotomy, and the answer comes back to the hoary old (yet demonstrably true) axiom, “Action reveals character.”

We are defined in life but what we do (or fail to do) and there is no escaping this at times inconvenient truth. And eventually the illusion spun through misdirection, refusal of accountability and unwillingness to take the occasional bruising for mistakes and omissions catches up to the posers. With focused effort one can change who one is to address deficiencies and weaknesses, but ultimately, one can never hide from who one is.

Many people may be familiar with the Jewish philosopher Hillel’s rhetorical quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Yet, interestingly, some of these very same people seem blissfully unaware that this statement is part of a couplet, and the oft-omitted second part of this adage is quite revealing: “And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

What makes this particularly interesting is that in the second phrase, the question posed is not “Who am I?” but rather, “What am I?” This choice of wording is unquestionably deliberate and suggests that those who are selfishly only invested in their own ego and satisfaction of their wants at the expense of everything and everyone else sacrifice the essence of their own humanity, and are therefore no longer considered a person, but a thing.

So remember, as wise and accomplished as you may perceive yourself to be, do not blind yourself to the realities of your own limitations, and most certainly, don’t fall for the mistake of believing the hype created by sycophants, especially if the chief among them dwells within your own being…

October 30, 2011

Adventures in (Mis) Management

After a longer than intended absence from this blog, I find myself addressing a subject which has long been of personal interest, and which I believe is both fundamental to and essential for any meaningful semblance of government and commercial enterprise to exist, which is that of management and its practice. Now it is important to note that my own view on whether management and leadership are synonymous is clear-cut; I do not believe this to be the case. It is my own contention, albeit one shared by a number of acknowledged management and leadership gurus, that good (and consequently, excellent) leaders will invariably possess sound understanding and command of management skills and principles, yet it is possible to be a good manager (particularly within a bureaucratic and/or rigidly hierarchical structure), yet be a middling and ineffectual leader.

Image courtesy Dreamstime

Perhaps due to this bias, I personally place great stock in the need for those in leadership positions to be aware of how they are perceived as managers, and how they operate in this regard. And because we often tend to learn more from failures and negative examples, I will call attention to what I perceive as shortcomings or outright failings that I’ve observed thus far in my career. The first step towards resolution or addressing of a weakness is to recognize it for what it is, so perhaps this will prove beneficial. And for those wondering in advance, I have seen many of the behaviors recounted in what follows manifest in a single individual, and consequently, that individual (along with others demonstrating less than desirable management traits) were held in low regard by peers and subordinates, contrary to their own perceptions.

Self deception, it deserves stressing, is nearly always present in poor managers.

IS IT BETTER TO BE FEARED OR LOVED?

When one is placed in a position of authority and responsibility, whether by choice or not, the two default modes by which most people will operate is respect and fear. Those who choose the former path of respect will entrust that subordinates and those accountable to them will perform to the best of their ability because they do not wish to disappoint someone whose work, reputation, personality and/or some other attribute resonates with them. Those who follow out of respect seem to “rise to the occasion” or “bring their A-game” in order to match (or exceed) performance expectations in a very positive way.

On the other hand, those who rely on management through the negative emotion of fear, which may consist of overt or implied intimidation (i.e. “I have the power to fire you”), reliance on strict hierarchical chains of command, public dress-downs or humiliation of under-performers, etc. must understand that they are eliciting desired behaviors through forced compliance rather than voluntary compliance. In other words, they employ the “stick” rather than the “carrot” approach. While I certainly have a strong viewpoint on which approach I personally favor and default to, I will not deny that fear can be a powerful motivator and there are managers that achieve results largely based on fear. The greatest danger, in my opinion, is managers who confuse these two opposing motivational factors and do not clearly understand that which they are practicing. If you choose to employ a “management by fear” agenda, know that you are vulnerable the instant your power is perceived as waning or the fear among subordinates dissipates. Conversely, those who rely on respect to manage must understand that should that respect for some reason be shaken, unless it is restored one’s authority may very well diminish.

Another key component to management (which in turn promotes good leadership) is remaining authentic. Authenticity is a quality which can be at once elusive as well as self-evident; many people can instinctively sense when others are putting up a false front or are acting contrary to their actual nature. Thus, the admonition to “Know thyself” is critical to being able to find one’s true self, and to let this guide one’s decisions and behavior. Working both in and around an industry (Entertainment) notorious for attracting people predisposed towards creating illusions, fabrications and false projections in order to get what they want, it is still interesting to note that some of the most dysfunctional and toxic personalities drawn to show business do remain authentic in their own perverse way. These individuals see little value in conforming to what are otherwise more widely considered acceptable standards of behavior and conduct, as often enforced in other industries, and consequently pay no heed in doing so. Whether they are admired or reviled for such attitudes and behavior (which in turn is largely dependent upon their perceived success and whether they can benefit those expressing the opinion), they are authentic to their natures. Of course, dealing with those who display sociopathic or psychopathic behaviors can be difficult for others, particularly when these tendencies are readily concealed.

All other things being equal, good managers will align their own core values and the values of the organization that they serve (which ideally are not too far apart) so that the appearance of, or actual existence of, hypocrisy is minimized. It is important as a manager to communicate what is expected of an employee and how that employee will be measured and judged, failure to do so leads to confusion as well as expectations which having never been vocalized or expressed, will seldom be met.

REPUTATION TRUMPS SPIN AND WHY INTEGRITY MATTERS

Image courtesy Dreamstime

Another issue for managers to be conscious of is that reputation always trumps spin. While it is certainly possible to fool some people for an indefinite period of time, fooling everyone indefinitely is highly unlikely. Managers with poor inter-personal skills or who are clearly out of their depth may convince themselves that their “secret” is safe, and may actively work to tell others of their greatness and alleged accomplishments, but this illusion cannot be maintained in the long term. I have met people who have proudly proclaimed their own greatness and confidently boasted of how well regarded they are by their subordinates (who interestingly enough, they refer to as “minions” which even when said tongue-in-cheek, reveals a lot about the manager’s character), only to find out with minimal probing that they are tone deaf to how others really see them.

While there are times, as a manager, where you may have to take actions that are not particularly liked by subordinates, if undertaken fairly and with good cause, the dislike of the action will generally not carry over to personal dislike of the individual. Those who fail to understand and appreciate this distinction are the one whose reputations, invariably, are nowhere near as “rosy” as they may perceive.

While one would normally hope that the following would not need to be said, both publicly discussed cases and my own anecdotal experiences have identified the moral and legal imperative of maintaining integrity. Furthermore, the cautionary note that must be sounded is that those who preach most vociferously about integrity, yet conduct themselves in a manner contrary to what they preach, are most assuredly devoid of integrity and ought to be duly censored for this. A more recent example that I’ve personally witnessed in recent years is observing an individual publicly stress the importance of integrity and ethical behavior, yet then proceed to misrepresent material facts, allow “errors of omission” to creep into documentation utilized for evaluation of a company’s suitability to perform certain work, and otherwise twist, distort or recast events and behavioral patterns to rationalize actions which were of personal self-interest and benefit, but far removed from objective truth or even the interests of the organization.

Having integrity requires one to possess some framework for evaluating choices in a context of “right” versus “wrong” (in which there are some absolutes) and not engaging in ethical and mental gymnastics to justify one’s favored decision or position when it does not confirm to the criteria established via that framework.

THE CARDINAL SIN OF MICRO-MANAGEMENT

Another pitfall which good managers must avoid is either the desire and/or tendency to micro-manage others. This is perhaps one of the most soul and morale killing activities that can be done, particularly when those subordinates are competent and experienced. It has been said that people less frequently quit companies than they do bosses, and micromanagement of tasks is often high on the list for why employees can no longer tolerate their direct managers. As a manager, if you feel the need to micromanage, this brings into question the competency of the person you are actively overseeing, and if this is indeed the issue, more appropriate remedies may exist. Perhaps the tasks or expectations are not clear, and further investigation and definition will solve the problem. Or, maybe the skills of the person are simply not up to the challenge, in which case the hiring process and decision-making broke down, or the job responsibilities have changed and the person’s skills have not kept pace with that change.

If as a manager, you are hiring people primarily because you do not feel threatened by them, and are loath to hire those who might one day rise to your own title and responsibilities, I would posit that the problem lies with you. The best leaders, and indeed managers, will hire people smarter and who potentially may be more accomplished than themselves precisely because they are not fearful of being replaced or overshadowed. What comes to mind for those who cannot bring themselves to embrace this approach is a timid, lazy and mindless bureaucrat more intent on job security than performing meaningful work.

NORTH VERSUS SOUTH KOREA IN A NUTSHELL

I will conclude with an incident that has stuck in my mind for years, which was a meeting that I attended with a notoriously bombastic and difficult literary manager/film producer and Jeff Berg, the chairman of the talent agency International Creative Management (ICM). During the course of the meeting, Berg posed the question, “What is the difference between North and South Korea?” His one word answer to his own question was, “Management.”

If you think about it, obvious oversimplifications aside, there still remains a lot of truth in that succinct response. Good management can lead to productivity fueled by heightened morale, collective belief in an organization’s mission and vision, and a desire on the part of individual workers to not be the weak link in the chain and to perform accordingly. Poor management kills employee morale and productivity, leads to unfocused decision-making, muddles or obscures any sense of mission/vision (if these existed to begin with), and creates a culture where employees may perform at some bare minimum level, but will not be self-motivated to push boundaries or to take unsolicited steps which might benefit the employer.

Most of us have no question as to which type of organization we’d like to belong or what kind of manager we’d like to either be or report to (or think we are), yet there is still sufficient evidence to suggest that mismanagement, rather than good management, is the order of the day within far too many businesses…

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