Master the Courage to Interrogate Reality
Life is curly. Don't try to straighten it out.
No plan survives its collision with reality. The problem is, reality has an irritating habit of shifting at work and at home, seriously complicating our favorite fantasies. And reality generally wins, whether it's the reality of the marketplace, the reality of a spouse's changing needs, or the reality of our own physical or emotional well-being.
Things change. The world changes. You and I change. Business colleagues, life partners, friends, customers. We are all changing all the time. As Lillian Hellman wrote, "People change and forget to tell one another." Not only do we neglect to share this with others, we are skilled at masking it to ourselves. It's no wonder relationships disintegrate.
The traditional practice of annual strategic planning sessions is a thing of the past. It no longer works for a company's executive team to spend two days on retreat, determine their goals, roll out an action plan, and call it a year. The team members must reconvene quarterly to address the question "What has changed since last we met?" As a company president recently admitted, "I'd like to get a firm grasp on reality, but somebody keeps moving it."
The best we can hope for, to quote business consultant Robert Bridges, is "the masterful administration of the unforeseen." Stuff happens. Internally. Externally. Some you can affect. Some you can't.
Life Is Curly
From working closely with corporate leaders, I know very well how quickly reality can change. The customer responsible for 50 percent of your business files for bankruptcy. Your most valuable employee is recruited away from you. Your competition comes out with a great, new whiz-bang product that you are not prepared to match or beat. New technology renders your product or service obsolete. The economy goes upside down. You go upside down, lost in the complexity of your organization's goals and challenges.
Perhaps you suddenly landed that huge customer you've been pursuing but never believed you'd get, whose expectations you are unequipped to meet. In the last quarter of 2001, the owner of a crab fishery in the Bering Sea scrambled to fulfill twice the normal orders for crabmeat from his customers in Japan. Why the demand? Following the September 11 terrorist attack, many Japanese canceled their travel plans and stayed home. And while they were home, they ate a lot of crab! Few of us would have foreseen a link between terrorism and the consumption of crab.
It would seem companies are stressed either because their sales are too low or because their sales are too high. As individuals, we are stressed either because we don't have enough of the things we want or because we have all of the things we want. We are either shedding or acquiring; either way, happiness eludes us.
Or perhaps you realize that you're operating at a new level of effectiveness in a particular area of your life. Life feels like your favorite class at school, with a rush of learning every day. You've received a promotion or you've fallen in love with a wonderful person. Whatever it is, something spectacular has happened and you don't want to blow it. It feels like acing a final exam and winning the lottery on the same day-exhilarating and a touch frightening. You've been given a valuable gift-a thrilling new reality-and you know it! And in some corner of your heart, a loving voice suggests, "Listen up, bucko. You'd better make some serious changes or you're gonna blow this deal!"
Let's face it. The world will not be managed. Life is curly. Don't try to straighten it out.
Whether you are running an organization or participating in a committed relationship, you will find yourself continually thwarted in your best efforts to accomplish the goals of the "team" unless reality is regularly and thoroughly examined. You know this. Describing reality, however, can get complicated. Let me show you what I mean.
Think of your company as a beach ball. Picture the beach ball as having a red stripe, a green stripe, a yellow stripe, and a blue stripe. Let's imagine that you are the president of the company. That's you standing on the blue stripe. The blue stripe is where you live, every day, day after day. If someone asks you what color your company is, you look down around your feet and say, "My company is blue."
How do you know? You're surrounded by blue. You open a drawer and it's full of blue. You pick up the phone and listen to blue. You walk down the hall and smell blue. Every day you eat, drink, and breathe blue. From where you stand, the company is as blue as it gets. Cobalt blue, to be precise.
So here you are in a meeting, laying out your strategy to launch an exciting new project. And, of course, you're explaining that this strategy is brilliant because it takes into consideration the blueness of the company.
Your CFO listens intently. Her brow is furrowed. She lives on the red stripe. All day she's up to her armpits in red. Cash flow is tight. She takes a deep breath and ventures, "I'm excited about this project, but when I hear you describe our company as blue, I wonder if you've studied the latest cash flow projection. I'm dealing with a lot of red these days. Can we talk about this?"
While many leaders do not welcome opposing views, you are highly evolved, so you respond, "Okay, put that red on the table and let's take a look at it." And the debate is on. Blue, red, blue, red, blue, red.
Meanwhile, your director of manufacturing is starting to squirm. He lives on the green stripe. He is thinking, "Man, oh man. The timing on this project couldn't be worse, but every time I share concerns I am viewed as a naysayer. Besides, it's nearly lunchtime and no one will thank me for complicating this conversation even further."
Your VP of engineering, who lives on the yellow stripe, has a strongly held, differing opinion, but his experience has taught him that differences of opinion lead to raised voices and strong emotions, after which someone dies. In his experience, for some people win/win translates to I win. I win again. And the last time he stuck his toe over the line with a controversial idea, the most vocal member of the team shot it off. So this key executive, who is privy to useful information, pulls off an amazing feat. He shrinks his subatomic particles and disappears.
This is possible, you know. Think about all the times a meeting has ended and you found yourself trying to remember if your VP of engineering was present. He was; he just made himself invisible. Some people are extraordinarily talented at this. They may be brilliant, but disappointingly (and irritatingly), they neither fish nor cut bait, they are neither hot nor cold. They appear to be, at best, politely indifferent.
The Corporate Nod
The ability to hide out at meetings was so prevalent at one company that the behavior eventually got a name. Picture a leader holding forth from one end of the boardroom table. She is espousing the cleverness of the current strategy. Like all good leaders, at some point she offers an opportunity for others to respond. Something like, "So what do you think?"
It gets quiet around the table. Unnaturally quiet. Like the quiet before a tornado, when birds fall silent and not a leaf stirs and a bilious sky warns of an approaching storm. Around the table, eyes fall. Each individual practices the art of personal stealth technology, attempting to drop beneath the leader's radar screen. At one point the leader calls on some poor bloke who is less skilled at vanishing than his team members.
"Jim, what do you think of the plan?"
Jim gets that look on his face like a cat occupied in the litter box-sort of far away as if to indicate that he is not really here and neither are you. The leader waits Jim out. Jim has to do something.
Jim nods. His head moves up and down as he gazes fixedly at a spot on the boardroom table.
The leader smiles.
"And what about you, Elaine?" the leader persists.
Elaine steps into the litter box. Head down. Eyes averted. She nods.
And so forth around the table, as the leader scans the room.
The Corporate Nod.
Satisfied, the leader concludes, "Good. We launch on Monday."
In the funnies, characters' thought-bubbles float overhead, capturing the unfiltered notions bobbing about in their heads. We love the Dilbert comic strip because the characters actually say what they're thinking and it's often what we have thought ourselves. If we could read the thought-bubbles floating over the heads of people sitting around the boardroom table, the very people charged with implementing the strategy, we might see: "There's no way we can do that! This is crazy!" Or "This sucker is going down. Time to dust off my risumi." Or "Wonder if my family would notice if I bought a ticket to Barbados and disappeared."
We don't know what people are thinking unless they tell us. And even then, there's no guarantee they're telling us what they really think. Yet, if asked, most people avow that they want to hear the truth, even if it is unpalatable.
A friend who is a high-level executive, intimidating to many, recently promoted a courageous employee who walked into his office with a large bucket of sand and poured it on the rug. "What the hell are you doing?" demanded my friend.
The employee replied, "I just figured I'd make it easier for you to bury your head in the sand on the topic I keep bringing up and you keep avoiding."
You can be assured this employee would not have taken such a bold and risky step if he were not convinced that the company was about to embark on a road to ruin. After a sleepless night, he had determined that he owed it to himself, his colleagues, his customers, and his leader to either make himself heard or leave the organization. He told his boss, "Everyone's in-basket and out-basket are full, but I'm concerned we're avoiding the too hard basket."
The conversation following this outrageous act interrogated reality, provoked learning, tackled a tough challenge, and enriched the relationship. It is no small thing that, as a result, the company made the changes necessary to avoid a potential disaster.
If you're in a similar situation, I don't advise you to buy a bucket of sand. However, do recognize that there is something within us that responds deeply to people who level with us, who do not pamper us or offer compromises but, instead, describe reality so simply and compellingly that the truth seems inevitable, and we cannot help but recognize it.
And if you are the boss who deserves a bucket of sand, you may have been defending yourself with the complaint: "I pump out energy and it's unilateral. Nothing comes back." Perhaps you are not allowing it to come back.
The Corporate Nod shows up in living rooms as well as boardrooms. Companies and marriages derail temporarily or permanently because people don't say what they are really thinking. No one really asks. No one really answers.
Ask yourself ...
* What are my goals when I converse with people? What kinds of things do I usually discuss? Are there other topics that would be more interesting?
* How often do I find myself-just to be polite-saying things I don't mean?
* How many meetings have I sat in where I knew the real issues were not being discussed? And what about the conversations in my marriage? What issues are we avoiding?
* If I were guaranteed honest responses to any three questions, whom would I question and what would I ask?
* What has been the economical, emotional, and intellectual cost to the company of not identifying and tackling the real issues? What has been the cost to my marriage? What has been the cost to me?
* How often do I recall members of my team or staff putting their real concerns on the table in an attempt to make the conversation genuine? What about my conversations at home? How honest are my partner and I being with each other?
* When was the last time I said what I really thought and felt?
* How would I describe the level of collaboration, alignment, and accountability of my executive team? of my family members?
* What are the leaders in my organization pretending not to know? What are members of my family pretending not to know? What am I pretending not to know?
* How certain am I that my team members are deeply committed to the same vision? How certain am I that my life partner is deeply committed to the vision I hold for our future?
* When was the last time I confronted someone at work or at home about his or her behavior and ended the conversation having enriched the relationship?
* If nothing changes regarding the outcomes of the conversations within my organization, what are the implications for my own success and career? for my department? for key customers? for the organization's future? What about my marriage? If nothing changes, what are the implications for us as a couple? for me?
* What is the conversation I've been unable to have with senior executives, with my colleagues, with my direct reports, with my customers, with my life partner, and most important, with myself, with my own aspirations, that if I were able to have, might make the difference, might change everything?
* If all of my conversations with the most important people in my life, including my spouse and family members, successfully interrogated reality, provoked learning, tackled the tough challenges, and enriched relationships, what difference could that make to the quality of my life?
Are My Truths in the Way?
It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that each of us simply needs to tell the truth. Will Schutz, who has taught seminars on honesty for decades, suggests that truth is the grand simplifier, that relationships and organizations are simplified, energized, and clarified when they exist in an atmosphere of truth. Yet Schutz acknowledges that truth, itself, is far from simple.
Pause for a moment and think about the truth. After all, what is the truth, and does anybody own it?
What each of us believes to be true simply reflects our views about reality. When reality changes (and when doesn't it?) and when we ignore competing realities (remember the beach ball?), if we dig in our heels regarding a familiar or favored reality, we may fail. Perhaps what we thought was the truth is no longer the truth in today's environment.