Groundhog Day, Together On Zoom

Staying Optimistic At Work When Everything is Hard

We’re now seven months into the slog of this pandemic. Those of us who can work — and can work from home — are probably feeling fortunate that, despite the hassle of zoom and video calls, we’re able to keep the train mostly on the tracks.

But, I’m sensing that, for a lot of us, the routine is starting to feel a little bit empty. Like the movie Ground Hog day, but without Bill Murray. Maybe our moods are getting a little jagged, and the humor is getting a little dark. And, maybe that future we’re building towards is getting a little cloudier. We’re trying to do good work, meaningfully, to create something better and, if we’re lucky, more useful. This rock won’t push itself up that hill, you know.

But, it’s getting harder. Trying to do it from the basement or home office is going to get lonely, if it hasn’t already. After a while, it’s all going to feel like most days are our worst days, when work is bullshit and we can’t really see the point of it. (Or, maybe the work really is bullshit, pandemic or not; that’s another post)

It doesn’t help that the virtual world we’re working in is overcooked and populated by a lot of empty wannabes. Those of us who pretty much live and work online are pepper sprayed with positivity and hustle-secrets by bros hawking their classes and private communities. I read too many click-baity headlines and I get worried for those under-employed journalism kids getting crappy hourly wages to crank them out, seeking just a bit of a career toehold so they can get off their parents’ payroll. There’s too much glossy snark and manufactured “I’m living my truth” first person stuff from stay at home moms and dads who dream of becoming the next Tim Ferriss or Glennon Doyle, the edge cases who actually did it, who jumped off the “real job” grind. I’m avoiding Youtube because it seems like every video is over-dosed with ads featuring some guy pitching me their course that will teach me how to sell my course, so I don’t have to work for the man anymore.

The relentless hustle and commercialism of this new workplace is toxic and transactional like the old one, just in a different way. It just reinforces the fear among us working alone, at home, that we’re not only in the wrong job, but that we’re not trying hard enough.

So how do we stay grounded? How do we see the meaning in the work, the satisfaction in the routine?

On my best days, I remind myself, in the words of the philosopher, that I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

Remember how Phil Connors escaped the bleakness of those Feb 2 day-loops? Hint: It wasn’t just waking up next to Andie McDowelI.

On my good days, I can wake up and see pretty clearly what we’re trying to do at Fahren:

• There’s a leader out there, trying to make something important happen at their job.

• It doesn’t matter too much what it is, but they’re probably trying to put some technology to better use.

• They might be trying to bring something new into the world.

• They know there’s a better way to work, some techniques they can use to do something smarter. 

• They want to keep growing and getting better. As workers, as leaders. As humans. They might be using their job to enact some real improvements in how they think, how they act and how they perform.

• They want help. They’re open to getting some ideas and support from a team that has gone through it before.

• Maybe they just want to hire an outside firm so they can work with likeminded people, so they don’t get stuck being a lifer in the old way.

• We can help. We can help that person solve their problem, to learn something new, to get a job done.

• We can help them make their own transformation, while they are changing the work they do.

Our chosen work is to help people develop and grow while they accomplish something important using the best, leading edge techniques and tools. That’s not a mission statement, or a slogan. It’s a reminder, a commitment.

Maybe that’s too optimistic? Perhaps a little naive? Well, that’s the choice I’m making. It’s how I want to view the world we’re working in now and I’ll keep doing it, even after the pandemic is over. I want my business to be successful, but I can’t keep working on it if cash is the only thing that drops to the bottom line.

We’re all swimming in tech. Technology is the water. But, when we click off zoom and look out the window, we have each other, good and bad, on the other side.

We work with people. We’re working for them, and in their own way, they’re working through us. 

I don’t want to be stuck in a loop of emails and Zoom. This choice is my way out.

What Comes After Zoom? Video everywhere and Then What?

I’m on a bit of work break right now and that means i’ve not had an online meeting in over 10 days. So, no Zoom, Hangouts, MSFT Teams, Slack video, WebEx, Skype, UberConference, GoToMeeting or Facetime (all of which i used in the two weeks leading up to my break for work).

You won’t be surprised to know I haven’t missed the meetings at all. At least, not the work part. I miss the social interaction of course. But, i don’t miss the small task of figuring out which tool to use for each of my meetings or fiddling with the equipment to make sure it worked and i could hear and be heard.

Zoom seems to have emerging as the leader because it’s easy, relatively simple, and reliable. It just works. But my time away has me wondering what’s going to come after Zoom?

I tend to agree with Benedict Evans, that video eventually just be a feature that every app has as part of it’s core offerings. Your project mgmt app will enable video interactions, your commerce apps will have video for customer support, etc.

But, in the meantime, there will be really interesting innovation ahead as, Evans says, “There’s lots of bundling and unbundling coming, as always.” Until, “Everything will be ‘video’ and then it will disappear inside.”

I’m curious about the way video is going to reshape the way we design our apps, once we make it a core feature. See, for instance, the vision of the Makespace team, where video is the interface for collaboration in realtime and more. I’m also curious how video gets used to support formal networks at work (think: Business unit conversations, meetings, projects, etc.) and informal networks (i.e. – peer groups, networking groups, etc.). I hope we see more than updated takes on House-party for work.

Radical Centrism Needs A Rebrand 

I’m fatigued beyond words with the two political parties we’ve got to choose from in the US. There has to be another way, another way to think through all the problems we’ve got in the States. And, while there are literally billions of opinions, there’s only two viable parties. So, i’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Third Way and  Radical Centrism.

 

There is a premium on civility among Radical Centrists that, while we all believe it is essential for Radical Centrist purposes, is intrinsic to who we are as people with a wide variety of interests. For most of us this is an effect of religious faith, including something similar among good-intentioned people who may be classified as humanists –in the sense that the word is used historically to denote someone who seeks wisdom from many different sources, not limited to religion.

Source: A. Radical Centrist Principles and Values | Radical Centrism

But, given where we are, the concept of “Radical Centrist” won’t really fly and while “Third Way” suggests a clear positioning as an alternative, it’s just pointing a direction.

What we really need is a rebrand. Who wants to write the brief?

Why is This Good: Ranier Beer

Ranier Beer is a good exemplar for “classic” brands searching for a way to resonate with consumers who are flooded with faux authenticity.

They recently redesigned the brand with the help of the amazing crew at Parliament in Portland.

Here’s what I love:

  • Retro, but not kitschy – They’re reverent about their past and give a nod to their previous brand expression, but its a little cleaner.
  • Tone – They’ve adopted a closer-in, more friendly and welcoming tone, but they’re not trying too hard to be clever or cool or be your best friend. You know there are real humans behind the scenes, but they aren’t being annoying about it.
  • Authentic, but Authentically Authentic – No fake backstory, here. But, they’re also not working overtime to tell you how much cooler they are (or were in the ’50s) than your new favorite hipster beer.
  • Community – They are – quite literally – working off the PBR playbook and are actively engaged in supporting the local (Pacific Northwest) sports, culture and environmental organizations.
  • Imagery – If you want to connect yourself to the beauty of nature, you better have really beautiful shots of nature. They did that. It’s almost as though this is a nature brand that also sells beer.
  • Timely / Relevant – They’re doing smart, mostly useful things like providing Zoom backgrounds, but keeping the branding relatively light.

Better Interview Tip #46

I was talking with Chip House (Linkedin | Twitter) about a variety of topics, including interviewing and building a great team around yourself.  When I asked him how he spotted leadership potential  he said he tried to ask questions that indicated how well the candidate knew themselves. What a wonderful insight!  I wish I would have had that heuristic years ago.

I’ve done a lot of interviews in my life but I never thought of using that screen: “How well do you know yourself?” And, the implied corollary, “How are you using that knowledge to better yourself and, ultimately, be a better leader? “

I’ve always asked questions that get at related topics: 

• What have you taught yourself lately (to see if they’re able to turn curiosity into knowledge)

• What’s a hard problem you’ve solved lately (to see if they can drive to solution)

• What’s the next leadership skill you want to add to your toolbox? (To see if they’ve actually got a development plan for themselves)

Those questions have been really useful, but I’ve never gone at interviews to understand the essential thing: Does this person have a good enough sense of themselves – their skills, their gaps, their blindspots – to be a good leader of people? 

Obviously, you can’t really know if people truly have good self awareness or not in a 45-60 minute interview, but if you go into the discussion trying to discern whether your interview participants understand themselves – a little bit, a lot, at all – it will only help you to make decisions on who could be a good leader for your team. 

Maybe the Most Useful Podcast Episode Ever (For Leaders)

I’ve listened to this episode of The Knowledge Project 3 times now and I’m pretty sure I’ll listen to it once a quarter going forward.

This is probably the most useful work-related podcast I’ve listened to (and I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts). This is highly relevant for you if:

  • You’re leading in a highly complex (even chaotic) environment
  • You’re leading a team that is growing
  • If you’re responsible for hiring great talent
  • If you’re committed to building a great culture in your company
  • If you’re trying to get better as a leader

The key insight is really kind of obvious, but comes across clearly here: We’re not actually rationale beings, that what we’re experiencing may be driven more by what we *feel* vs what is actually happening. Our own brains make up stories about what’s happening and why and these stories – the narratives we fit our experiences into so they make sense to us – get in the way of true clarity about what’s really occurring and how we interpret the experience.

Jeff Hunter (of Talentism) is a guy that’s been talking to, hiring and coaching top leaders for years. He’s got deep experience making hard choices and he, in a way, unloads a lot of it in this talk. I’m specifically interested in his experiences at Bridgewater, Ray Dalio’s investment firm.

Hunter makes a persuasive case that we should embrace the confusion we feel when things get don’t go as planned and we should see confusion as a sign that we’re in a position to learn. We should be examining the gap between what we expected to happen vs what actually happened and seek to understand our assumptions and our knowledge gaps.

Finally, this whole podcast is worth it for three things:

  • How to avoid telling yourself the wrong story about performance (beyond avoiding negative self talk)
  • How to give better constructive feedback
  • How to get smarter about the hires you make

Background: Shane Parish has been inspiring me via his Farnham Street platform where he focuses on tools that help you make decisions, better. I love the mission, and for years he’s been providing a ton of great resources for leaders. His curiosity is on display in every interview and he might be the perfect guy for this interview.

Don’t Blame the McKinsey Messenger

What Problem Were You Trying to Solve When You Hired The Consultants?

(warning: this is a hot take).

I want to stand up and cheer for this series of posts from Zeus Jones, but i kind of also want to call BS. I agree with 90% but think they’re setting up the wrong strawman.

Who wants to be the one defending the classic management consulting firms? Not me, but to a certain degree, any professional service provider who’s talking to a client about “digital” or innovation (or the related work) is a management consultant. Including my firm and Zeus Jones. 

I don’t think management consulting is going away. We get hired to provide external perspective, experience-informed recommendations, and to shine the light on the right problems to solve. We provide short term support to get our clients through complex issues where a different perspective can actually create clarity.

I completely agree that the problem is cultural, that there’s something glitched in the DNA of most companies, and they won’t accept the injections from great consulting firms like Zeus Jones.

I also believe that every organization will need to be more adaptable, open, creative, empathetic, collaborative, etc. Whatever, but yes to working differently.

I love the framework of Imagination and Ingenuity. it works on a lot of really smart levels, and every company would benefit from both. It’s the really smart, swaggery, controversy-baiting thought leadership that great firms like Zeus are known for. It’s not dissimilar to the kind of thought leadership that gets companies like Ideo, Redscout, Frog Design hired. To consult with leaders. To solve problems and change their businesses. You know: Consultants to management.

But, let’s focus on the core problem: Leadership and the courage to play the long game. Consultants get hired by good, smart people to help them make hard decisions. If those decisions don’t lead to the right outcomes that’s probably because someone made the wrong decision and/or the execution fell apart.

I think the real villain is the concept of “Maximize shareholder value on a quarter by quarter basis” and i think the evil assistant is probably private equity (which drives orgs to forsake long term investments in favor of doubling down on “now”). And, then throw in unbelievable executive compensation formulas  that front loads options and equity.

I’ll be thinking about this series of articles for a while, which is exactly what the provocative folks at Zeus wanted!