Friday, March 31, 2020

White Space

Here's a poem by A. E. Housman called "When I was One-and-Twenty." It comes from his collection: "A Shropshire Lad."

Do you find it hard to read? Not very attractively presented? Try this version. Same text, same typeface and font size.

The only difference between the two versions is the amount of white space around the text.

"Slow" is increasing the amount of white space in your life. White space doesn't sound exciting or important, but it is. It's essential for you to see clearly what's right in front of you. Just as a page of writing with insufficient white space around it looks cramped and unattractive—besides being annoyingly difficult to read—so a life without enough "white space" in it is congested, confining and likely to make you frustrated and unhappy. White space doesn't look much, but it counts for a great deal.

What produces white space in your life? Rest; sleep; time to think and reflect; periods doing nothing save staring at the sky, watching a bird, enjoying a beautiful flower; listening to music (not merely having it playing in the background); enjoying a good book. The list could go one and on. White space is made up of just about anything you do for its own sake, without hurry or concern for achieving some set result.

In leadership, the boss who packs every moment of every day with restless, frenetic activity will produce a cramped, congested culture where vital messages are hidden by all the clutter and noise around them. There's no space to breath, no time to reflect and consider. It's like the first example of the poem above. All the words are there, but a whole book printed like that would be completely unreadable, however important the message it contained.

We need white space in our lives as much as we need the air we breathe, the water we drink and the time we spend sleeping. None of these sound exciting, but try doing without them. Doctors are now pointing to lack of sleep as a major cause of sickness in adults and children in the USA. We're designed by nature to have around eight hours uninterrupted sleep each night; more when we're children. Most adults get barely six hours. Some children are watching TV, playing video games or doing homework until 11.00 p.m. and getting up before 5.00 a.m. to get the school bus. If that's not a miserably cramped existence, I don't know what is.

Ask any designer; the white space makes the image. Musicians too know the rests and silences in their music are what really lets the melody appear. Wise leaders don't skimp on white space in life or your work. They know the rest isn't worth a damn without it.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2020

Slow Planning (Part 2)

Planning is one of the commonest management tasks. Yet conventional approaches typically fail to match expectations and encourage dangerous inflexibility. Slow Planning offers an attractive alternative. This is Part 2 of a two-part explanation.
I’ll begin with a reminder of the steps involved in Slow Planning:
  1. Patiently develop understanding.
    1. Watch, reflect, consult and explore.
    2. Open your mind to many alternatives besides the obvious.
    3. Wait for recognizable patterns to emerge.
  2. Review as many possibilities as you can.
    1. Stay open to the unexpected.
    2. Avoid becoming committed prematurely.
    3. Challenge all assumptions and previous thinking.
    4. Watch for a preferred response to emerge from the best available thinking.
  3. Take swift, direct action.
    1. Keep decisions as close to events as possible.
    2. Act swiftly and decisively once you've chosen a course of action.
    3. Let go of failing actions quickly. Never waste your time trying to rescue something that is past help.
    4. Stay flexible, get as much feedback as possible and use the results to improve future understanding.
The first step is quiet, careful and open-minded observation. Instead of issuing fixed commands to an unknowable future, then trying to force compliance by willpower and determination, the Slow Planner watches, waits and allows events and trends time to reveal themselves.

Setting A Course
Once the conventional, planner has set a course, she sets up measurements to chart progress and trigger remedial actions. The typical metaphor is the pilot of a ship, checking position and making course corrections to cope with currents, tides and weather. Sadly, the future isn’t much like the ocean. Ocean currents are stable. There are charts to follow, GPS and radar. And if the weather is unpredictable, there are still forecasters to give you some warning. The future is a mass of possibilities, uncertainties and changing probabilities. Imagine the ocean currents constantly shifting unpredictably. What if the seabed rose or fell without warning and shoals moved? What if reefs had only estimated positions; or the port you are aiming for might have moved somewhere else when you reach its last known position? Imagine navigating without reliable charts, since those you have only reflect conditions as they were some time in the past. That’s closer to the reality of planning based on forecasting the future.

The Probable Future

Probabilities confuse people. Take a look at any group of gamblers. The laws of probability are well-known and will always settle the outcome of their bets; yet gamblers persist in believing they can beat the odds, however many times they lose. People want certainties. They want their lives to be predictable and stable; they want to believe in a future they can trust. Executives are no different. Like everyone else, they’re more likely to ignore uncomfortable realities than grapple with them.

Events always seem so predictable in hindsight, when all the probabilities have been collapsed into a single, known outcome. Yet the people involved at the time nearly always failed to see what’s coming. Why" Because, until it happened, their future was a mass of probabilities, uncertainties and contingencies of varying likelihood. Life is always contingent. We just don’t know what it’s contingent on, most of the time.

Slow Planning tries to deal only with realities, however unwelcome or unexpected. It doesn’t assume events will turn out as planned. It doesn't direct attention solely towards the expected or wanted result. The Slow Planner works carefully to open her mind to wider and wider possibilities, exploring differing potential outcomes and seeking out emerging trends. This takes time and effort, but not nearly as much as trying desperately to force one’s will on events spinning further out of control. Planning for how you want the future to be, then trying to make it fit your plan, is far riskier and harder than watching carefully to see how the future is turning out, then responding as best you can. For the conventional planner, future actions must conform to a plan laid down well in the past and based on the information available then. Changes must be limited to what the predetermined measurements allow, or the plan becomes unworkable. The only alternative is to abandon the plan and start again.

Defying Reality
Managers often have much of their personal credibility invested in the plan, so it’s not surprising work often continues in defiance of reality, only to be finally abandoned when the inconsistencies become too great to paper over. You need only spend a short time inside most large organizations—and many smaller ones as well—to see how often projects are abandoned only after lengthy, wasteful and pigheaded efforts to deny a reality anyone unbiased could see long before.

For people addicted to imaginary certainties, Slow Planning is no planning at all. There are no grand, carefully crafted strategic plans; no long-term policies or procedures; no commitment to fixed budgets or objectives; no big, hairy, audacious goals. Only a quiet, patient effort to see what is emerging as the way of the future and craft a suitable response.

In conventional planning, you must choose actions long before of events. It’s assumed the planned actions, if performed fully and with determination, will produce the wanted result, whatever the circumstances at the time. In Slow Planning, decisions on action are left as late as possible in the process, then carried out immediately. When an understanding of events emerges, action should always be swift, purposeful and direct. Because of this, Slow Planning is inherently more flexible and responsive than the conventional kind. No one’s ego is invested in steps chosen long ago, when things maybe looked quite different. There’s no existing set of commitments to be set aside; no clinging to past decisions; no time wasted trying to jury-rig a failing plan to cope with events far outside its original boundaries.

A Better Way
Over many decades, and despite enormous effort, conventional planning has failed to deliver its promise of clear, predictable outcomes. The current wars against terrorism and in Iraq have once again proved the fallibility of some of the most sophisticated planning processes available.

Slow Planning is an alternative that moves action decisions closer to the events that must be handled. It substitutes time spent on trying to force events to fit the plan with time spent gaining an understanding of emerging reality. And it discards carefully composed images of how things ought to be in favor of accepting the way they are and basing actions on that.

It won’t appeal to those who cling to a belief the future can be made predictable. It won't please those who want to keep their delusion of being in control, even when it’s clear they aren’t even in control of their own reactions. It will appeal to leaders prepared to accept their job is less about predicting the future than responding effectively to whatever happens, when it arrives.

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Monday, March 27, 2020

Slow Planning (Part 1)

Planning is one of the commonest management roles. Yet conventional approaches typically fail to match expectations and encourage an attitude of dangerous inflexibility. Slow Planning offers a more rational alternative. Here is Part 1 of a two-part explanation.

Given the many hours devoted to planning and budgeting, the payoff seems meager at best. Most plans quickly part company with reality; many fail in several major respects; some prove disastrous. Yet organizations typically remain devoted to planning—a process that they know is badly flawed—maybe because they assume the alternative is anarchic chaos. This isn’t true, as I will show. Slow Planning provides a simpler and more robust alternative; and one less prone to encouraging stubborn, rigid responses when conditions change—as they nearly always do.

Conventional planning requires these assumptions:
  1. You can predict the future in fairly close detail, maybe several years ahead.
  2. It’s possible to impose your will on events, and therefore outcomes too, by sustained and disciplined action.
  3. Closely following a pre-defined set of actions is the best way to produce the result you want.
  4. You can deal with the unexpected by setting up measurements in advance to chart progress and trigger action to reassert control.
All of these assumptions are false.

The future is impervious to human willpower. You can will tomorrow to be wet or fine, but nothing will change as a result. You can set a direction, form a plan, or set up hopes for the future; but unless you believe in magic, none of these will cause the universe to change course.

The very short-term future often behaves much as the immediate past, which is why short-term plans and forecasts work so much better than longer-term ones. Indeed, for many organizations today, long-term is taken to mean any plan that extends more than 12 months ahead. But changing terminology merely tricks the mind into seeing success where none exists. Economists, politicians and experts of every kind rebuke American industry for endemic “short-termism.” None notice that conventional planning almost demands such short-term thinking, if it is to produce any success at all. Long-term planning is little better then blind guesswork or hopeful prophesy.

If willing the future to be as you wish encourages doomed efforts to control the uncontrollable, believing you can control it at all is irrational. By what means can you force the future to fit into your preconceived plans? By determination? That’s simply more willpower, and no amount of willpower can change anything outside your direct control. By policies and procedures? Setting fixed policies in advance is an excellent way to institutionalize rigidity at all levels. By commanding it shall be so? Egotism may be rampant among executives, but mercifully few believe the universe will respond to their direct commands.

Relying on preset measurements assumes, of course, that you know in advance what the most important factors will be in deciding the success of your plan. The saying “what can’t be measured can’t be managed” has this much truth: most of the key events that will affect your plan cannot be anticipated fully enough to be measured or managed at all. No one will see them until they happen. Leadership is more about reacting to the unexpected in rational ways than sitting in the calm of an office producing advanced plans that can be carried out more or less as intended.

When their plan begins to unravel—as nearly all will—leaders typically resort to stronger and stronger efforts to regain control. They work harder; drive everyone to spend longer hours at work; bully subordinates; lay-off “inadequate” performers; loudly demand results, adding threats or incentives, depending on their character; change advertising agents, suppliers, consultants; restructure the whole organization (again). Most management techniques exist to re-impose control on events already slipping away from the anticipated path. That’s why so many of these nostrums quickly fall out of fashion. They're doomed to produce continual disappointment.

What few, if any, managers do is quietly watch and try to understand.

Obsessed with regaining the control they never had, they rush instead into actions based on simplistic rules of thumb and the managerial equivalent of folk-wisdom. They’re so busy trying to force the universe back into line, they have no time to consider what these unexpected events might mean. Perhaps a fashion is ending. Or consumer sentiment is shifting towards a new direction. Maybe the organization’s basic assumptions no longer work, its technology is inadequate, or its strategic direction is flawed. Maybe new products are penetrating the market faster than anyone expected. Until leaders can grasp what’s going on, any reaction is premature.

Patience is rarely counted as a leadership virtue, which is a bad mistake. Events often take their own time to become clear, and the person who jumps without knowing where he or she is heading is guilty of culpable rashness.

These are the steps of Slow Planning:
  1. Patiently develop understanding.
    1. Watch, reflect, consult and explore.
    2. Open your mind to many alternatives besides the obvious.
    3. Wait for recognizable patterns to emerge.
  2. Review as many possibilities as you can.
    1. Stay open to the unexpected.
    2. Avoid becoming committed prematurely.
    3. Challenge all assumptions and previous thinking.
    4. Watch for a preferred response to emerge from the best available thinking.
  3. Take swift, direct action.
    1. Keep decisions as close to events as possible.
    2. Act swiftly and decisively once you've chosen a course of action.
    3. Let go of failing actions quickly. Never waste your time trying to rescue something that is past help.
    4. Stay flexible, get as much feedback as possible and use the results to improve future understanding.
This is the approach all the most successful leaders have used instinctively. They watch, consider and wait patiently until an opportunity presents itself; then act with breathtaking speed and decisiveness. This was how Robert E. Lee confounded often numerically superior Union forces; how Napoleon became the terror of Europe; and how Erwin Rommel threw the British army in North Africa into panic.

In the next posting, I’ll look at each of these Slow Planning steps in greater detail.

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Friday, March 24, 2020

Are Your Systems Holding Your Business Back?

For five decades at least, organizations have been seen as "machines" you can make more efficient by redesign, removal of unnecessary parts and streamlining of what remains. Organizational systems have been constantly refined and updated; computers have reduced or eliminated clerical work; and technology has increased throughput and virtually eliminated manual labor. Productivity and efficiency gains have been dramatic. Yet most have come directly from the use of machines. Organizations have been far less interested in finding ways to allow the people in the business to contribute more—except through long working hours.

Today, this organizational model is running out of steam. After years of restructuring, reengineering and downsizing, there’s too little “fat” left. Even computerization seems to be reaching a point where the impact on profits and results is limited. Outsourcing is commonplace because it offers cost reductions by sending existing patterns of work to lower-wage countries.
Businesses need to look elsewhere for further productivity gains. To be effective in a globalized marketplace, they need to see beyond the old, mechanical, "do it faster" model of organization to more organic, natural models instead.

The Organization as Machine
When the ideal organization is seen as a predictable machine, management leads by creating systems that, like programs in a computer, direct the total operational, financial and technological actions of the business. Even the smallest change needs a change to some policy or procedure. That’s why it’s difficult and expensive. Preserving the integrity of those organizational systems takes precedence over anything else. Customers and suppliers must either accept what the systems offer or go without. In reality, customers move to someone who treats their concerns realistically. That’s how so many huge American corporations have lost out to overseas competitors. They put organizational efficiency and profit above the needs of their customer base.

In machine-like organizations, the people who work there are cogs in the machine: interchangeable, easily expendable and constantly restrained from doing anything that upsets existing procedures. You can see how inward-looking such organizations become. When systems and procedures drive everything, obeying them is the supreme source of organizational well-being. Numerical measures are everywhere, superseding reason, common sense, experience or intuition. “Making the numbers” is all that matters.

Slow Leaders know mediocre patterns of thought always produce mediocre results. Repeating the past necessarily produces a static business. Organizations are not machines, and never have been. Using people as dumb "parts" is wasteful and inefficient. Such a clumsy, blinkered way of operating makes organizations like machines in another way: it makes them inflexible, impersonal and vulnerable to any competitor that offers better service and greater responsiveness to customer needs. Change, if it comes at all, comes only through wholesale reengineering: a massive, expensive and disruptive experience that sometimes costs far more than it gains.

The Organic Alternative
There are alternatives. Complex, technologically advanced and adaptive ways of organizing have existed in nature for millions of years. It’s odd that people have been so slow to recognize that usefulness as models.

Nature works by slow but constant, small adaptations linked to a broad view of intention. Individuals within a species are free to find better ways at any time. Anything that works is swiftly copied and spread around. Learning isn’t the preserve of a few; it’s what everyone does. Indeed, learning is so essential to survival, any individuals who fail to learn swiftly leave the gene pool through predation. There's no mechanistic system. Nature relies on continual experimentation, always selecting the best answers to pass on to the next generation.

In organizational terms, this means encouraging new ideas at every level in the hierarchy, quickly noting the best and making them available to everyone else. The top team concentrates on refining the overall vision for the business. Those immediately below translate this vision into strategies and evaluate results, looking for what works best. Everyone else concentrates on implementing the strategies by tactical means, again looking for better ways of turning intention into results. What works is repeated. What no longer works is abandoned without fuss or regret.

It may look messy and unsystematic, but this approach is far more flexible and responsive to changes in the environment. It may also take a little more time at the start to get everyone to trust such a radical change; but continually finding and implementing better ways of doing things quickly becomes a normal part of daily work—not the preserve of expensive external consultants.

Organizations that adopt this kind of working find their results limited only by the power of their vision. Everyone is free to find innovative ways to increase progress. When they face problems, the emphasis is on discovering the causes and removing them for the future—not providing a limited, short-term word-around that ignores the underlying need for change.

Going Organic
Becoming an organic learning organization requires a major commitment to regaining a strategic approach and allowing human creativity, not technology alone, to propel the business forward. Policies and procedures become limited, temporary tools to achieve specific goals, instead of the sole means of organizing and measure of excellence. Systems are no longer treated with mystical reverence. People run the organization, not dogmatic procedures served by computers and mindless bureaucrats.

By staying within the bounds of conventional ways of working, organizations quickly become rigid, resistant to necessary change, and provide no better than mechanical levels of service. These constraints then limit effectiveness and hold back results. People don’t notice them because they are so familiar.

In the crazy, harassed state that results from a "make the numbers—or else!" culture, there's no time to learn, no time to seek out the underlying causes of problems, no time to think about future direction. Every action is the simplest possible; every problem is "solved" by a quick-fix workaround; every request that falls outside established procedures is a nuisance to be avoided or ignored.

There's always time to do what truly needs to be done, because taking any other action will be wasted effort. With productivity gains from the old approach beginning to peter out, changing to a more wholesome, organic way of running a business offers the only chance of continuing growth and improving returns.

Get off that hamster wheel of "making the numbers." Become instead the kind of exciting, open-minded workplace that focuses on fostering creativity, generating fresh solutions, constant experimentation, and a longer-term, more organic approach to running the business. Your employees, your suppliers and your customers will quickly show their appreciation via the bottom line.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2020

Thoughts on Speaking Out

For leaders at every level, no news is decidedly bad news. They depend on others to let them know the reality of what's going on, preferably in good time to take appropriate action. If subordinates are uneasy about the consequences of saying what they know, the chances of being badly surprised by events increases dramatically.

For society as well, fear of speaking openly about the realities of life simply means people look away, rather than confronting problems. We're all far too prone to politically-correct notions. Maybe we don't want others to see us as insensitive or boorish. Maybe we don't have enough self-confidence to tell it as it is, if we fear instant disapproval. Whatever the reason, there's a huge difference between what's correct and what's politically correct. If prejudice and discrimination are unacceptable actions, as they are, that shouldn't mean it's also unacceptable to talk openly about the human fears and emotions that cause them. For the politically correct, differences—even real ones—are too scary to mention. Acknowledging a difference may lead to yet another source of discrimination.

As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Penn State professor James Detert explain in a paper called "Latent Voice Episodes: The Situation-Specific Nature of Speaking Up at Work ," people are often unwilling to say what they think or what they see. What the professors call "latent voice episodes"—moments in which an individual employee has something to say and considers whether or not to say it—depend partly on the individual's character (is he or she naturally outspoken?), but even more on situational factors.

Their findings suggest our current economic and social situation isn't conducive to honesty. People fear for their jobs and careers. In a partisan, divided society, speaking out honestly can get you into trouble. The professors sum it up like this:
…most of us depend on hierarchical organizations and their agents (i.e., bosses) to meet many of our basic needs for economic support and human relationships. Thus, fear of offending those above us is both natural and widespread. One way we can get in trouble with those above us is to speak up in ways perceived as challenging of authority or critical of cherished programs. Given the exaggerated and real reasons to fear offending authorities, it isn't surprising that people clam up when the signals seem unfavorable.
Political correctness coupled with economic uneasiness quickly leads to an atmosphere of fear: fear of disapproval or, worse, fear of litigation. For many organizations, the driving force towards diversity has less to do with openly acknowledging the benefits of accepting people as they are—wildly diverse by nature—and much more about avoiding potential legal problems. Add to this the tendency of autocrats the world over to punish anyone who brings them bad news and you have the perfect recipe for so much ostrich-like behavior.

The professors have a realistic view of the organizational world:
Despite some well-intentioned efforts, we haven't yet worked with an organization that has fully transformed itself from one of fear to one in which most employees would rate the organization as open or conducive to speaking up…It's worth remembering that this is not about being "nice" or creating a "nice" workplace. In fact, those organizations where voice is more natural and welcome can be pretty tough places in the sense that people are direct! Not all news is good news! But people also have learned to expect the good and the bad, and know how to process it…Managers need to hear from the people in the organization who are closest to the work, closest to the customers—that is, from those who are in the best position to recognize problems and have new ideas.
Slow Leadership is firmly committed to discovering and acting on reality—not false views of the world dreamed up to make life seem better, or more politically and ideologically acceptable, than it is. Haste is a bitter enemy of honesty. If you're under pressure, why add to that pressure by speaking out, especially if you think it may add an angry boss to all your other problems? A risk, even an imaginary one, of legal trouble is enough to shut many mouths.

Only where leaders take enough time to create an atmosphere of trust will they get the truth they need to make sound decisions. Time is the key factor is replacing the stupidities of political correctness with an honest commitment to facing the truth, however unpalatable. You need time to listen, time to explore, time to understand, time to consider and accept. In our foolish haste to get to the next imagined goal, we ignore—or crush—the quiet voices telling us the world isn't as we want it to be. Today's organizations are as riddled with fear as any Victorian sweatshop. And that fear may blind you to reality as surely as faulty military intelligence creates bad wars.

I'll let the professors have the last word:
Perhaps most surprising to us has been the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life. Whenever we talk with others about this work, such as on airplanes with strangers, we get a similar response—"Oh yeah, I can relate to wanting to speak up but biting my tongue." It's really a shame how much apparently untapped knowledge there is out there and how much pain and frustration results from this silence. That, too, has been somewhat surprising—that people are genuinely hurt and frustrated about their silence. This suggests that employees aren't failing to provide ideas or input because they've "checked out" and just don't care, but because of fear.

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Monday, March 20, 2020


One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.

       Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), The Conquest of Happiness

The benefits of balance go far beyond balancing work and life demands. An unbalanced life is always problematic. Sometimes it seems justified, but the effects rarely work to your advantage over the longer term. Look at celebrities who win fame and large gobs of cash at an early age. Many of them experience disappointment soon after. Some, especially those who added drugs or alcohol to the mix, find suicide as the only solution.

Slow Leadership aims to find a balance between the obvious need to get things done and the equally important need to live in a civilized and sustainable way. So how can you establish where the point of balance lies?

There isn't, I believe, some off-the-shelf answer. Everyone's situation is a little different. Still, a good way to think about creating the right balance in your life is to treat it as you would any major investment of money. Professional financial advisers are united in pointing investors away from unbalanced types of investing. It's far too risky. Investing all or most of your wealth in a single company or business sector is like betting everything you own on a single horse race: wonderful if you win; a total disaster if you lose.

It's the same with your life. Unbalanced ways of living are full of risk: to your health, your family and relationships, your mental stability, your prospects and your peace of mind. You may believe you're on to a certain winner—certain enough to throw most of your personal life capital behind it in the expectation of a huge win—but life is ricky. What seems a sure bet today may disappear by tomorrow. Is it really worth the risk?

Of course, most people aren't even aware of how much risk they're taking. They follow the crowd, just as thousands of small investors threw their money into the "dot com" boom of the late 1990s, certain that it must be the right thing, since everyone else they knew was doing it as well. When they lost much of their savings, it wasn't much of a consolation to be part of the crowd again.

It's the same in other aspects of life too. The herd mentality prevails and people rush to join in. Whether it's overspending and accumulating debt, trying to emulate the yuppy lifestyle shown on TV, or staying late at the office, following the crowd is what most people turn to automatically.

It's worth extending the comparison between lifestyle balance and financial caution a little further. When you choose how you want to live, you're investing a great deal of your personal capital in that decision. Capital made up of your time, your energy, your commitment, the success of your relationships and family life, as well as your personal earning capacity. The cliché says purchasing a house is your greatest lifetime investment. That's not true. What you invest in your choice of lifestyle is far greater; it includes your emotional and physical health too.

The workaholic who invests him or herself in job and career to the virtual exclusion of everything else is making a tremendous gamble. By giving up home and family life, ruining most relationships and risking mental and physical health to gain career advancement, the workaholic bets the resulting wealth and status will more than compensate for those losses. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. Either way, there's a cost to be paid. Being a workaholic isn't right or wrong: it's extremely risky. By the time you find you've lost, it will be too late to change your mind.

A butterfly who lives only for instant pleasure is just as reckless. So is a lazy bum sponging off others and hanging out on the beach all day. All variations of unbalanced lifestyle carry high risks. A balanced financial portfolio is tied up in a wide range of investments. A balanced life is invested in many aspects of living. Some will work out well, some won't, but overall the risk of disaster is minimized.

One way to start is to check out the major aspects of life to see if you're giving each of them a significant amount of your attention. Any balanced life is going to cover all of them; not in equal amounts, but enough to make sure none are totally ignored:
  • Work and career
  • Personal development, learning
  • Health, physical activity
  • Thoughtfulness, quietness, inner calm
  • Family, friends, relationships
  • Leisure, fun, relaxation
  • Community
Take a look at your own life. If you're devoting most of your time and energies to work, maybe with small amounts for relaxation and relationships, the chances are good that you're lifestyle isn't properly balanced. It's easy to put off restoring the balance to some future time, especially if you're young and ambitious, but when you get there, you may find the chance is already gone. Developed countries—and many developing countries too—are already paying the price for unbalanced lifestyles in epidemics of obesity, diabetes, stress-related illnesses and domestic break-ups. Balance isn't simply a nice ideal; it's essential to mental and physical health. It's even critical to organizational health, since unbalanced organizations are equally prone to sudden catastrophe.

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Friday, March 17, 2020

In Praise of Skepticism

When something is out of fashion, that's usually a strong indication it's worth checking to see what you might be missing. Skepticism is essential to success in science, politics and business. The fact that it's unfashionable doesn't change this in the least.

Skeptics are never popular. They rain on every parade. They distrust emotional responses, positive or negative. They constantly ask difficult questions and usually refuse to accept your easy answers. Worst of all, they point out all the flaws in your pet project, just when you've convinced yourself it's perfect.

Before you agree that skeptics are just a pain in the butt, consider the alternative. Have you ever made a fool of yourself by being carried away by some idea? Do you know of situations where unscrupulous people have deceived others out of their money, their freedom, or their lives, by rushing them into actions based on nothing but faith in lying promises? Wasn't there a need for something—or someone—to call a halt before the damage was done?

The current fashion, especially here in the USA, exalts faith-based approaches to life. But when faith becomes too dominant, you're a short step from dangerous gullibility. Science based on faith is no science, since any belief with a sufficient body of faithful supporters will be accepted as the truth. The same is true of medicine. Politics based on faith puts loyalty to the cause above the wider public good. In business, unquestioning faith in a charismatic leader is usually a recipe for disaster, as is unthinking faith in some vision of the future. Speculative "bubbles" are products of unquestioning faith, as those who poured money into the "dot com" boom can testify. They had faith. In time, it was all they had.

Keeping your footing in our complex world depends on balance. A little skepticism is a sovereign remedy against being taken in by hucksters of every kind. Of course, unrestrained skepticism quickly becomes nihilistic, undermining our confidence in the future and reducing us to mass depression. Too much is too much. But unrestrained outbursts of faith are also something people need to avoid. History shows blind faith has been the driving force for dictatorships, wars and massive financial frauds. Today's international terrorism depends on people whose unquestioning belief in a cause allows their leaders to send them on cynical suicide missions.

We need skepticism to slow us down enough to sort out good ideas from bad ones. It's so easy to be carried away by imagination and see only the positive. Skepticism demands proof. It wants every claim to be justified, no matter how persuasive it sounds. While people are being swept along by wild enthusiasm, the skeptic steps aside and asks whether all that emotion has any verifiable basis.

One of today's worst fallacies is the false dichotomy: an assumption that there are only two sides to an issue; that everything is either black or white. You're either "one of us," a faithful supporter of the right approach, or "one of them," an enemy of truth. You support the government of the day—or you're unpatriotic. You're a team player—or a useless loner.

Balderdash. All balderdash. Only the simplest and most feeble problems have just two options; especially if, as is usually the case with false dichotomies, they're both extremes. Of course, it makes a more exciting story—and provides more sound-bites—if a complex question can be reduced to the old cowboy cliché of clean-cut goodies versus evil baddies in black hats. It's dramatic, but it's not true. Our world has a trillion shades of gray. Most opportunities—and most options—lie in the middle ground, away from the extremes beloved by headline writers and instant gurus.

Skeptics and naysayers get a bad press. They're usually depicted as blockages to the dream of progress. In our world of instant gratification, the most outrageous claims of advertisers, politicians and business leaders scarcely raise a ripple of concern; while those who raise questions and want to delay long enough to check the facts are howled down as reactionaries and Luddites. Politicians rush to enact legislation fueled by partisan ideology and mass emotions, when the purpose of reasoned debate in the legislature is to prevent the passing of bad, one-sided laws without adequate time for review. Business leaders jump on Wall Street bandwagons instead of standing aside and concentrating on sound, long-term strategies.

Skepticism is medicine for bad thinking. True, it sometimes tastes bad, but it's still the best cure for unforced errors. Skeptics may annoy us with endless questions and challenges to our comfortable assumptions. In some cases, as with the Greek philosopher Socrates, asking too many difficult questions gets you put to death. Yet without the skeptic's constant demands for verifiable evidence, we'd probably still believe the earth is flat and warts are caused by witchcraft.

The next time you find someone using calls to faith as the basis for justifying some action, try taking a healthy dose of skepticism. If the idea is correct, you'll be able to prove it. If not, you'll avoid a good many problems. Every enthusiast needs a skeptic around to keep them balanced. The power of positive thinking is immense—but so is its capacity for error, unless you take the time to answer the skeptics before committing yourself.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2020

Action...or Reaction?

What happens when you have to do something and don't have enough time to think properly? You react. You rely on instant, rule of thumb responses. Mostly, you do what you've done many times before. It's second nature by now. It doesn't need thought or even much attention.

Organizations complain when managers fail to show initiative or "think outside the box," but it's usually their own fault. Instead of allowing the time it takes to work out the steps needed to reach a sound decision (research, analysis and evaluation), organizations expect harassed managers to get it right without more than a cursory glance. Under such pressure, what other course is possible but to react—to grab at the first, obvious answer and hope it works?

Business has always valued pragmatism. Mere ideas rarely make much profit. It takes sound implementation to do that. But we seem to be slipping into a business mindset that equates thinking with wasting time. Books like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking attempt to create a belief that instant responses are somehow better than more considered ones. I'm afraid I think this is nonsense. Intuition can—and often does—appear to produce insights out of thin air. But careful consideration usually shows that the "sudden insight" is the product of months, even years, of thought, analysis and experience. The master of a craft makes it look effortless—but only because he or she has put in so much effort and practice before.

Many people have an automatic suspicion of those whom they label "intellectuals" or "egg-heads." It's not without some justification. There are people about who use their knowledge primarily to put others down and try to make themselves look important. But to replace the importance of rational thought with instant, usually emotional reactions is like expecting everyone to be ugly and badly dressed because a few people use their beauty and elegance in unpleasant ways.

Slow Leadership is always thoughtful. Reaching the right decisions may, after long, long years of effort, look quick and easy to outsiders, but that's a false impression. It always requires making sure you understand the situation correctly, have time to look for patterns and causes, and consider all the most appropriate options carefully, before reaching a decision. Reactions allow only for a single option. Sound actions always need to be choices from the best of what's available.

Hurried choices rely on mythology: the belief that some things are "meant to be" and can't go wrong, however superficially people think before jumping in. Like the idea of true love at first sight, they make a great story, but rarely work out that way in reality. Becoming a master of your business is a lifelong pursuit, as George Leonard explains so well in his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. He writes:
The quick-fix, antimastery mentality touches almost everything in our lives. Look at modern medicine and pharmacology. "Fast, temporary relief" is the battle cry. Symptoms receive immediate attention: underlying causes remain in the shadows. More and more research studies show that most illnesses are caused by environmental factors or way of life. The typical twelve-minute office visit doesn't give the doctor time to get to know the patient's face, much less his or her way of life. It does give time for writing a prescription.
Next time you face a decision, will you act…or simply react? Will you consider the alternatives fully…or grab some quick-fix solution you hope will make the problem go away—until it comes back? It's your choice. And if you believe you can get it right on the basis of gut-feel alone, good luck.

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Monday, March 13, 2020

News Round-up

Here are some recent international news items of interest.

In February, a survey in Great Britain, covering more than 1,600 people and conducted by the Work Life Balance Centre, Keele University, and the University of Sheffield, reported tired and worn out workers are making mistakes that cost money, compromise safety and put lives at risk. The survey listed a catalogue of mistakes made by frazzled employees, ranging from car crashes to medical errors. Julie Hurst, Director of the Work Life Balance Centre, said:
While the number of people admitting to making a mistake was small (11%) the consequences were chilling, including serious medical errors leading to patient deaths. We also had a number of road traffic accidents, incidents involving trains, and workers being contaminated with dangerous chemicals. One of the reasons we carry out the survey each year is to try to find some answers to the problems of poor work life balance and these results reinforce the importance of this work.
March 1st in Ireland was National Work Life Balance Day. The Minister for Labour Affairs, Tony Killeen, said that work life balance is of strategic importance to the efficient operation of the labour market, and is a key issue for competitiveness.
Appropriate work-life balance policies and practices will help us accommodate diversity, to manage the shift to knowledge-based and service occupations and facilitate lifelong learning and up-skilling.
Writing in "Bay Area Business Woman" in the USA, Barbara B. Adams lamented that four decades after the birth of the feminist movement, we are still struggling with the same issues of balancing career aspirations and family needs.

Her solution involves an organized push for public policy changes; a shift in thinking about children, elders, and social responsibility; and a personal strategy for what having a balanced life means. Pointing out that women represent more than 50 percent of the American population, she says this enormous force, with huge influence and power, should band together to demand long overdue policy changes.

In "Fortune" magazine, Ellen McGirt quotes leading consultant Clay Shirky on five tips for making your work day sane. They are:
  1. Give yourself a time-out. Devote an hour to uninterrupted thinking and planning every day.
  2. Show your technology who's boss. "Anyone who has his e-mail client notify him anytime an e-mail comes in has already lost."
  3. Keep your meetings rare. Surveys show most people find meetings a major time waster. Use them sparingly, keep to an agenda, start and end on time.
  4. Say no. Giving in to desperate colleagues or harried bosses is the quickest way to overload your schedule and muck up more important goals.
  5. Delete. Surveys show we waste 20 percent of our day on nonproductive activities. Cut out or delegate anything on your to-do list that doesn't have long-term consequences for your work.
Judith Timson in Canada's Globe and Mail commented
Increasingly, employees are demanding more out of their employers, their line of work, and themselves as they navigate the ever-changing waters of the modern working world. Add to that the fact that workers are also constantly being bombarded with new trends and buzzwords such as work-life balance and passion, and being pressured by the complications of family and child-care demands on their time-compressed lives, and it's no wonder that many people are confused about what to do next or where to go for career advice.
She thinks it's inevitable, explaining she hasn't talked to many people, especially young ambitious professionals, who feel they can say no to a heavy work load, even a workload that does cut into their private time, when they are on the way up. Still, she mentions an intriguing answer to the problem of irritating and useless e-mails:
There was a terrific piece recently on the CBC about a company that decided to ban e-mails between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m., the theory being that if you actually stopped the keeners from sitting at their computers until midnight firing off e-mails that made everyone else feel guilty and oppressed, you would create a more manageable workload.
On the same track, it seems British cellphone company Orange is encouraging workers to switch off their mobile phones. The company suggested bosses take the lead in telling staff to remember that mobile devices do have an off button. They also raise the issues of "digital rights" and how mobile devices can blur the line between an individual's private property and what belongs to their company. A company spokesperson said:
In the days of the always-on environment, it's sometimes necessary for employees to switch off, whether that means stepping aside from their work, or physically switching off [a mobile device] and restoring a bit of work-life balance.
How's that for an idea?
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Friday, March 10, 2020

Letting Go, Letting Be and Letting Through

Letting go is essential to change and development. Letting go of old habits, old anxieties and old ways of seeing the world. Change need not be an aggressive process. You don't have to destroy the past or drive it from your mind. Many of those old patterns of thought served you well in their time; only that time is past and now they're holding you back from changes you need to make. So let them go. Stop clinging to them. Just put them down and walk away, no backward glances.

One you've made a change, the temptation to tinker with the new patterns can be very strong. That's where letting be is important. Changes take time to embed and become strong. Don't be like a small child with a packet of seeds, digging them up next day to see if they're growing yet. Your previous life pattern probably took decades to form. You may feel as if you've swept it all away in a rush of enthusiasm for the new, but it's still there, believe me. Making changes stable will take longer than you think. Meanwhile, adding yet more change only prolongs the process and weakens its impact. Those old patterns are ready to snap back into place if they're given an opening.

The quickest way to return to old, discredited patterns of thinking and behavior is to add change upon change in a welter of excitement. Each new change undermines those that have gone before, while they're still only loosely fixed in your daily behavior. The most likely result is a series of failures and disappointments. Growth needs time. Life proceeds at its own pace. Haste rarely pays off. Let things be.

Taking your time and allowing events to develop also offers the opportunity to let the future through. It's amazing how often people block their future growth and development by focusing only on what they expected, not what is actually coming into being.

Whatever you expect your future to be is rarely—if ever—exactly what happens. Life is too uncertain and dynamic. Events happen according to their own logic, not your expectations. Sometimes the real future offers greater opportunities and benefits than the one you imagined—but only if you're alert enough to spot them and turn them to your advantage.

If you allow yourself to become fixated on a desired result, you stand a good chance of being disappointed, as well as missing the possibilities in whatever actually occurs. A new career always has drawbacks as well as benefits. A change of outlook brings problems as well as fresh insights. By setting yourself fixed expectations, you open the door wide to disappointment and frustration…followed by remorse and a slow return to all those old, predictable ways. Meanwhile the future is offering you more than you even dreamed was possible—only you're blind to what it's offering as you fixate on hopes and dreams that weren't fulfilled.

Letting the future through means:
  • Stepping away from the narrow categories of expectation you formed earlier.
  • Striving to see what's there; not just whether what you planned has come to pass.
  • Opening your mind to the unexpected.
The universe has a way of producing greater riches than we expect—only not in precisely the form we were looking for. But if your intention is strong, and your mind open, you can seize these unexpected offerings and turn them to your advantage. This bigger, brighter and more exciting future can only become real if you let it burst through your limited vision and expectations. The universe demands our cooperation, if we are to benefit from its gifts. Standing in the way, eyes wide shut and mind clamped on some hoped-for outcome, is inviting the future to run right over you, probably hurting you badly in the process.

These three steps—letting go, letting be and letting through—are the only ways I know to defeat that constant pulling back to old habits and limited visions. It doesn't seem sensible to me to limit your view of the future just to what you can see from here; or, worse, to some extension of your past experience. If you give yourself time to see with fresh eyes and respond to reality—not just your limiting assumptions about it—exciting possibilities will emerge. Five minutes spent considering people's attempts to predict the future should be enough to prove we humans are very poor at envisaging what's likely to happen, and our predictions are laughable compared with what actually happens.

Don't waste time and energy trying to second-guess the future. Devote yourself instead to these three actions:
  • observing patterns as they emerge;
  • sensing unexpected possibilities; and
  • responding immediately so you can benefit from them.
Let go of past assumptions and habits; let the future be whatever it is, don't try to force it into the limited confines of your expectations; and let any and every new possibility through, so it can grow and develop—and take you along with it.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2020

Making Change Stick

People set themselves objectives for change—yet find after a while their old behaviors are as firmly entrenched as ever. They start a new venture with enthusiasm—only to lose interest and give up before achieving success. There seems to be a malevolent demon in human affairs that undermines our best intentions and returns us—sometimes again and again—to the exact situation we determined to give up for ever.

Richard's comment on a previous posting is typical of such situations:
6 months ago the workload on my team was reasonable to 40 or so hours. As new projects are brought on and hiring decisions are being delayed, we are slowly approaching the 50 hour week with on-call support to go along with it. I compare my situation to putting a frog in boiling water; if you throw a frog in boiling water it jumps out, but if you put him in cold water and slowly raise the temperature the frog will eventually boil to death. What advice can you give to prevent from being sucked into that life again?
The demon that assails Richard and his team, of course, is habit.

Humans are creatures of habit, mentally and physically. Try using some muscles you haven't exercised in a while. Your body will swiftly respond with pain and stiffness. Change your bed or chair and you'll likely feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. Try to cause yourself to think differently—or see the world in a new light—and you'll fall back into your old ways again and again, especially if you're under pressure.

You're used to seeing the world in familiar ways; using well-known mental paths and assumptions you've probably held for many years. Such habitual mental patterns eventually become virtually invisible. They're like the wallpaper of your life; you no longer register the pattern, even though it's the backdrop to everything you do. And the familiar feels so comfortable. It offers responses you know: safe, predictable and reliable ones—at least, that's what your mind keeps telling you. You've used them successfully before. Why fix them, if they aren't broken?

But many of them are broken. The world changes, even if you don't. What used to work in the circumstances of the past becomes less and less effective. People cling to their habits for all the wrong reasons: because they're familiar; because change seems risky; because they don't know what else to do. And the more pressure they're under—like Richard and his team—the more they slip back into easy, familiar ways. When it takes most of your strength merely to get through the day, adding the extra stress of unfamiliar ways of doing things can seem suicidal.

Change of any kind disrupts habits. That's why people resist it. It makes them feel anxious and fearful. They long for the "comfort blanket" of what they know. The more fearful they become—and fear seems ever more prevalent in our world—the more they cling to anything that seems familiar. Many of people's opinions are mostly habit; they would be hard-pressed to justify them logically or factually, even if they acknowledged the need to do so. Their values are based more on habit than conscious choice. They rely constantly on rules of thumb and past experience to solve problems, not investigation, thought or creativity. They're trying to force their world back into paths they believe they know and understand. It's a hopeless task, of course, and bound to end in tears.

More than 2000 years ago, the Buddha recognized that "attachment"—clinging to the way you want things to be and ignoring the reality of how they really are—is the major cause of pain and suffering in the world. His solution is still the only one that works. You must let them go.

Fighting your habits doesn't work. It focuses your attention on them so they grow even stronger. Many start with more power than your motivation for change. All are deeply entrenched, where change has, as yet, only the shallowest roots. Besides, the contest is rigged. You can "beat" your habits a dozen times or more and they'll return with their strength scarcely dented. Yet if they overcome your new-founded resolution to change just once, it will be badly damaged. Proponents of the old, "tried and true" ways know this well. They can endure multiple defeats, yet remain a potent force. The agent of change can be ruined by a single failure.

Let them go. Acknowledge the pull of the past as an interesting phenomenon—then ignore it. The past is over. Letting go is the essential key to change that sticks. Don't fight. Don't struggle. Don't blame yourself or feel guilt. However often the old habits trip you up, just acknowledge that it happened again and let it go. Return to your desired change. As Christopher Marlowe wrote:
Friar Barnadine: "Thou hast committed—"
Barabas: "Fornication—but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead."
The past is another country. It too is dead. Let it go. If you find yourself backsliding, don't feel anxious or upset. That too will pass. It's nothing to get excited about. Simply return to the new path you've set for yourself, a hundred times—a thousand times—if necessary.

Depriving old habits of the oxygen of approval or attention will kill them. It takes time. Imagine them as tough, deep-rooted weeds. Killing the tops with weedkiller once won't stop them springing up again. But if you do it often enough, they'll be unable to grow back. Attention, guilt and self-criticism are the fertilizer these weeds need to return in full strength. Don't give it to them. Starve them to death.

Being drawn back into old ways is natural. Don't worry about it. If it happens, it happens. So, is there a solution? Indeed there is: let go, ignore the pull of the past and move on. If you don't cling to the past, it can't cling to you.

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Monday, March 06, 2020

The Quick Fix: Today's Black Art

Our culture of "faster is better" and instant gratification is elevating the quick fix from a second or third-rate expedient, acceptable only under duress, to the normal way many people deal with problems.

The attractiveness of the quick fix is based on three grossly overrated attributes:
  • Speed;
  • Ease; and
  • Simplicity.
Quick fixes are speedy because they rely purely on existing knowledge and rules of thumb. It's the art of using the most obvious answer, regardless of the details of the situation. But where time is already severely limited, spending it on discovering the fundamental source of a problem becomes an impossible luxury. Excessive pressure often compels reliance on the quick fix.

The ease of the quick fix is an illusion born of using what's known and habitual—even if the problem is novel and unprecedented. In addition, quick fixes usually bypass the involvement—or agreement—of others. They appeal to the temptation to do it all yourself, plus the wish to avoid wasting time on discussion or inviting disagreement. Finding the true nature of the difficulty, then reaching a permanent solution, may demand dealing with many other people first. Of course, your quick fix may cause additional problems for these people; but those aren't your problems. Part of the art of the quick fix is pushing your problems out of your silo. Don't worry if they turn up somewhere else, with extra problems in tow. You'll be in the clear. Blast the difficulty high in the air and hope it comes down far, far away.

Quick fixes are simple—and frequently simplistic too. There's no time or inclination for deeper thought. The simpler the "answer," the better. A complicated solution is rarely quick or easy, which is precisely the lure of the quick fix. We're enjoined to "keep it simple, stupid." In many cases, keeping it simple is, indeed, the stupid thing to do, though I doubt that's what those who mindlessly repeat this empty mantra think they mean.

Our culture is obsessed with action: for "making things happen." Thoughtfulness is dismissed as "unrealistic" or "impracticable." It's usually rather easy to make something happen; making the right something happen is the tough part. But the dedicated proponent of the quick fix relies on being well away from the danger area long before it becomes clear the action he or she brought about made things worse.

People don't want to do a poor job, sticking broken systems together with duct tape and hoping it'll hold long enough to get past the next quarter's figures; they do what they do because they feel they have no alternative. No time to understand; no space to create a long-term answer. The pressures they face are crazy: impossible demands, inadequate resources, bosses who believe bullying is the same as leadership. No wonder the temptation to resort to quick fixes becomes irresistible. Besides, the pressures are definite and here today; the fallout from a mistaken quick fix is uncertain and will occur—if it does—sometime in the future. Who knows if they'll even have a job by then?

Organizations become addicted to quick fixes. Like other drugs, quick fixes produce a temporary sense of relief and euphoria. Addiction is accompanied by strenuous denials; the organization is always fully able to kick the habit—only not quite yet. The negative impact on corporate health takes time to emerge and by then, it's too late. Corporate cold turkey is no more pleasant than any other kind. Rather than face the reality of their situation, household name businesses resort to ever larger doses of special offers, marketing gimmicks and rapid changes of top personnel. They cannot face the reality: that their competitors have a better product and their quick fixes are doing nothing to alter this.

The road to Hell, it's said, is paved with good intentions. The road to corporate collapse is surfaced with quick fixes of every kind. It's time to acknowledge the quick fix for what it is: an inadequate response typically born of unreasonable haste, lazy thinking and desperate pressures.

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Friday, March 03, 2020

The Slow Art of Forming a Judgment

I am not in favor of the annual charade known as the performance appraisal. Of all the dubious aspects of command-and-control management, it is the most malignant in purpose and result. Thousands of people find their future career prospects at the mercy of harassed superiors with neither the time nor inclination to form more than a superficial assessment of their talents, based on ill-informed or subjective opinion. Expressing the complexity of another human being on some ill-defined rating scale is impossible anyway.

Yet managers must reach judgments all the time. It's an essential part of their role. But haste and good judgment rarely go together, despite the trendy idea that people’s best decisions are those they scarcely think about. People have always made snap judgments—right back to Eve and that smooth-talking serpent—but the outcome has more often been regret than satisfaction. Instant opinions must still have some basis. They do not arrive out of thin air. And while it’s comforting to believe your subconscious mind has been doing all the work in advance, the reality is simpler. Instant choices are emotional—and emotions are notorious for being a poor basis for serious judgments—and draw heavily on stereotypes. If people are prone to making up our minds about other people within seconds, that’s not a tribute to exceptional powers of observation and discrimination. What are the first impressions you trust so calmly based on? Mostly folk wisdom (his eyes are too close together); suppressed memories (she reminds me of cousin Ermintrude—and no one liked her); or the effects of the extraloaded pizza you ate too quickly for lunch.

Judgment takes time and care. A slow leadership approach is different to the form-filling, numerically based inanities of annual appraisal that disfigure too many organizations.

Observation—lengthy, careful and deliberate observation—must be the first stage. No one can come to a sensible opinion about another person’s abilities based on impressions formed with neither care nor attention while attending to other business matters. Such opinions must be little more than casual impressions, yet the form the basis for most appraisal ratings. Has the supervisor spent time focusing only on following the subordinate in a wide range of business circumstances? Has she tested and retested those observations? Has she considered the exact circumstances and weighed the likely impact of external events? Unless she has, her opinion isn't soundly formed. She needs more time.

Next, there is the question of what our imaginary supervisor is looking for. Are the criteria for proper performance clear? Has she communicated them fully? In my experience, the expectations many managers have for their subordinates’ performance are neither clearly understood (even by the managers themselves) nor openly shared. Misaligned expectations make a mockery of statements about current abilities, let alone long-term potential.

The wise manager learns first to appreciate and only much later to pass criticism. Snap judgments are always extreme—they cannot be subtle, since subtlety needs time—and more likely to be negative than favorable. Our evolutionary past is to blame. Early humans faced a dangerous world, where a small wound, a chance meeting with a wild animal, or meeting another human with a bad temper, could lead to extinction. People who fretted, worried and distrusted others were more likely to survive and pass on those traits. Looking for the good in a saber-toothed tiger, or in Ug from the next village, was much riskier that assuming both were mean, murderous and looking for a chance to make you into a meal.

Relations between primitive societies are usually hostile, just as they are between departments in a modern corporation, and for the same reason. You get hurt less often that way. However, leadership needs the leader to use his or her people to best advantage—to bring them to a point where they can deliver their full abilities. That can’t happen if all the leader allows himself to see is their faults and failings.

Criticism also produces distance, and distance is fatal to sound understanding. The best leaders make sure they put themselves as close to the action as possible, where they can see what may be blocking progress and how people respond. Shallow, inept leaders stay safely well behind the lines, issuing critical judgments from afar and engaging in the far more profitable (and physically safer) business of office politics. If you’re part of the action and things start to go wrong, people may expect you to do something about it. How much easier to keep well away and criticize what you didn’t have to do yourself.

Leadership is the process of helping others to do better, through direction, advice and training. Passing judgment after the event is essentially worthless, compared with being right there while events might still be changed for the better. A performance appraisal is an exercise in writing history—or, at least, fitting it into preset categories. Leadership is making history in the moments while events and outcomes are still malleable.

For the Slow Leader, exercising judgment depends first on careful and lengthy observation. He or she constantly shares expectations and explains standards. The Slow Leader Is right there, part of the action, understanding people’s abilities and continually giving their counsel, help and encouragement. Only when an event is past and dead can any final judgment be made; by then, the leader’s role is over and the historian’s has come. Armchair strategists may love to chew over what might or should have been, but the leader is already far ahead where events are still current and there are victories and reputations to be won.

Snap judgments, lordly criticisms and the paraphernalia of paper appraisals are marks of leadership amateurs. Professionals don’t waste time on them. Their time and attention is kept for actions that can still make a difference to the outcome.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2020


It's easy to assume people only work excessive hours because they have to: that grasping management or greedy bosses force them into it. Even workaholism can be defined as a sickness that drives people to self-destructive behavior.

But what if many people work themselves nearly to death because they choose to do so—freely and without external compulsion?

Here's how the process could work.

In times of uncertainty (like now), our imaginary employee decides the best insurance against losing his or her job is to become indispensable: to stand out from the crowd as the most effective and admirable worker. It's not a very radical thought, is it? In many ways, it's obvious. And it also carries the additional benefit that it may very likely lead to career advancement—an equally desirable goal.

Naturally, our employee's colleagues have the same thought. But being outstanding is a "zero-sum" game. There can only be one top person. That sets up a chronic competitive state. People strive to out-do one another in order to stand out. They don't need to be motivated to do this by external means. They're doing it because they want to; because it seems the best way to avoid nasty consequences, like job loss. Of course, organizations welcome such attitudes and go along with the assumption; even build it into their policies. Jack Welch's famous mantra of firing the bottom 10% of performers each year is only one example of ways this might work.

But how do you prove you're "outstanding?" One way is by results—and this probably explains why there has been a rash of managers going along with (or initiating) the idea that the ends (better results) justify almost any means, however ethically or financially dubious. But results are tough to obtain and uncertain even then. Much can happen outside the employee's control.

That's where hard work for long hours offers a more controllable alternative. If everyone work 35 hours a week, but you work 40, you'll likely establish a reputation as a hard worker. And it's so easy to do. Of course, the others quickly catch on. In the past, especially in highly cohesive, unionized workplaces, such "rate-busting" was quickly brought back into line. But today's workplaces are filled with people who think of themselves (and are treated) as separate individuals, and union power is a shadow of what it once was. In such an environment, that chronic competitive state prevails. Now everyone work 40 hours and you must work 50 to stand out. And so it continues, until the average work week is 60 hours or more and individuals are working 70 or 80 hours or longer to prove their outstanding devotion to duty.

Our whole workaholic system could be driven by these two forces:
  • A pervasive and chronic sense of individual competition, because each employee feels he or she is alone and can best escape job loss (or win advancement, or both) by proving to be of greater worth than the rest.

  • A general atmosphere of threat and staff reductions, produced by the corporate assumption that employees are costs to be minimized or eliminated.
Productivity can be driven upwards by doing more with less (the general assumption) or by doing much more with either the same or greater resources. What matters is only that any increase in resources is less than the resulting increase in output. Productivity and profit increases can also result while output remains the same (or even falls), so long as resources used fall faster. That's what we are seeing most today. Many corporations are increasing productivity (and profits) while overall output remains pretty much the same. They aren't doing more with less; they're doing the same (sometimes even a bit less), with ever more radically reduced resources. They may use fancy jargon to camouflage what they're doing (like "focusing on core business"), but that's what it amounts to.

In this scenario, the constant emphasis on driving costs down (as the simplest way to increase profits) creates the necessary pervading sense of threat to employment. The result is increased individual competition to stay out of the danger-zone of the next round of layoffs. Our culture of valuing hard work as an end in itself then kicks in, ensuring the most obvious way to "win" over your colleagues (so they're given pink slips, not you) is to demonstrate you work harder (and longer hours) than they do.

If my reasoning is anywhere near the truth, people will go on desiring a more civilized way of working, while practicing workaholism as a purely defensive strategy. Only when everyone meets the law of diminishing returns will something have to give.

Are we there yet?

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