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.

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…

April 27, 2011

Why You Must Avoid Becoming “Middle Seat Guy”

Authors Note: This posting was inspired by a prior blog posting written by Curtis Franklin, Jr. on the Enterprise Efficiency IT blog earlier this month…

Anyone who has ever experienced airline travel, especially in the post 9/11 world and traveling in steerage (oops, I mean “economy”) class, intuitively understands that nobody, and I mean nobody, voluntarily chooses a middle seat. It’s simply not done. And part and parcel to this is understanding that the metaphor of occupying the “middle seat” when it comes to employment or marketability for independent, self-employed types in our Brave New World is avoiding finding ourselves in the Middle Seat, because it’s a miserable position to be placed in and ultimately, is not viable for one’s long-term viability, health or sanity.

In order to solve a problem, one first has to understand it, so let’s dive in…

CHARACTERISTICS OF “MIDDLE SEAT GUY”

If we accept the premise that one rarely volunteers to be the “Middle Seat Guy” (or Gal), absent extenuating circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that a lack of sufficient planning and/or preparation often leads to this unfortunate categorization. And the truth is if you find yourself in the “Middle Seat” in business especially, you’re running a very real risk of being viewed as being expendable or at best, a mere commodity which is easily replaced by management on a whim.

Photo courtesy Sodahead.com

One of the major disruptions to the psyche of many white collar, or “professional” workers if you prefer, has been the realization that regardless of educational or work history pedigree, the system no longer protects those who may think of themselves (consciously or not) as being among the “elite” or most privileged. Much has been written about lately of the phenomenon of BWM’s (Beached White Males), typically displaced men in their 40’s to 60’s that were previously high-earners, some in what is supposed to be the prime earning years of their lives, who have discovered following their voluntary or involuntary termination that the world is no longer beating down a path to their door and the six-figure salaries that many were accustomed to are no longer sacrosanct.

As many corporations race to create, deliberately or not, a neo-feudal system in which the wealth and power is overwhelming concentrated at the very top with various levels of “serfdom” fulfilled by a mix of workers (including a cohort who can salve their wounded egos, if not their wallets, with various permutations of managerial or lower ranking executive titles), those who thought they had played by the rules have been disabused of the notion. Formerly convinced that they had dealt themselves a strong hand, these disillusioned and disenfranchised players have found they were mere patsies who were used and discarded, and pleas for understanding or “another shot at the big time” tend to fall on deaf ears both up and down the hierarchical ladder. After all, those who still have their jobs, especially if their positions are reasonably well paying and prestigious, don’t want to be tainted by association with perceived “failure” or the “fallen,” and those lower down in the pecking order may have little sympathy for people who once fed at the corporate executive trough and disdained or dismissed the very work which these refugees are either too prideful to accept even if offered, or completely unqualified to perform.

PROACTIVE AVOIDANCE OF THE “MIDDLE SEAT GUY” SYNDROME

So if one realizes the dangers in being passive, or even worse, complacent, regarding one’s career and economic future, what mitigating steps can be taken?

Clearly, both on a professional and personal level of self-development, it is vital that we adhere to the following core traits:

  • Remain adaptable and avoid stagnation by constantly evolving.
  • Do not wait for rewards and recognition, but create opportunities for these to arise.
  • Accept that change is inevitable, and that we are best served if we see it coming or do not waste energy fighting a reactionary battle that we cannot win.
  • Make ourselves indispensable through a “can do” attitude and willingness to learn new skills.
  • Avoid defining ourselves, or letting others define us, through simple sets of labels and preconceptions.
  • Understand that market value and “worth” are two different things; sell your value and thereby increase your perceived worth.
  • Never compromise our core values and ethical framework, but remain fluid in how we achieve our most compelling life goals, which should drive our sense of a personal mission.

Many of these concepts have recently been encapsulated in the notion of teaching individuals how to forge a “Protean Career,” and for employers, a “Protean Workplace,” which author and career coach Jay Block has been advocating for and spearheading via the Protean Careers Group on LinkedIn. Over the past several weeks, a small group of participants (the author of this blog included) have codified the notion of 12 Protean Principles which are meant to serve as a guide for people who understand the importance of continual improvement and development to avoid becoming stagnant, easily commoditized, or de facto, a “Middle Seat Guy/Gal.”

Further discussion of the 12 Protean Principles and their genesis will be forthcoming in future postings, so look for these soon!

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to send an email to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION

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