Most of us love processes and rules and best practices, even if we don’t like the jargon around them. Having standards and procedures creates order, helps everyone remember what to do, and can calm the nerves. A lot of people like having a sense of certainty, too.
The problem is that life keeps moving along, and eventually what was the “best practice” or “cool” is obsolete, passe or worse.
There's no one cause of this disruption. Sometimes technology has advanced, and there’s no reason to do what you used to do. Maybe a competitor or an upstart displaces the old ways. Or, what was once good has gone too far, and balance needs to be restored. Whatever it is, the underlying circumstances or context have changed. Causes are one thing; the type of change is another. Incremental, cyclical or radical -- the lack of clarity can further muddy the waters.
Through all of this, we need to understand that this is normal -- and that we cannot ignore what's happening. We need perspective, new ways of thinking and new tactics. We need to have an open-minded approach that values listening, learning and analysis.
We need to be explorers, with all the curiosity and humility that requires.
Cycling from end to end
“All curation grows until it requires search. All search grows until it requires curation,” ~ Benedict Evans
A few years ago, Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz wrote about a certain cyclical trend when it comes to finding things on the internet. He gives several examples, but let’s look at search.
Yahoo, in a sense, was a hand-built directory of the internet, but that only scaled so far, which helped create space for Google’s computer-driven search of everything. But Google isn’t (or traditionally wasn’t) as good at recommending what you should be searching for -- it’s a compendium rather than a tastemaker. So, someone invariably wants to fix that, too. Flipboard, for example, is an example of offering curated, topic-based lists (it is also algorithm-powered). But that type of curation has its natural limits, and eventually people start demanding an algorithm. And so it goes, on and on.
You see these cycles in business all the time. A growth-oriented company hires a lot of staff, spends on marketing, maybe makes an acquisition or two. Then, a couple years later, it’s a bigger company but is now a mess structurally, with too much redundancy or spending. So, it pulls back, pauses hiring and consolidates some teams, maybe exits a nonessential or poor-performing business.
The same with regulation. Aviation, for obvious reasons, is highly regulated. But US airlines are not nearly as regulated as they were before 1978, and the Federal Aviation Administration further delegated certain matters in recent years. Now, with the Boeing 737 Max crashes, we might see a change in direction. Sensible hands-off regulation might now look like insufficient oversight because of new information and new contexts.
On a managerial level, we can look at something like the late Andy Grove’s “task relevant maturity.”
“How often you monitor should not be based on what you believe your subordinate can do in general, but on his experience with a specific task and his prior performance with it – his task relevant maturity…as the subordinate’s work improves over time, you should respond with a corresponding reduction in the intensity of the monitoring.”
But as that blog post goes on to note, this is easy to get wrong. Micromanagement is the obvious misapplication of task relevant maturity, but so is putting so much trust in someone that you, the manager, essentially disappear. As the task changes, so must the manager’s assessment of maturity.
This applies to career arcs for leaders, too. Top performers become managers, or managers ascend to the C-suite. Suddenly the skills that got them there aren’t as useful, and they become the inexperienced newbies despite their status and longevity..
I could go on with anecdotes, but what’s the common thread here? Two things:
- Precious little stands still, and reassessing what you’re doing -- and why -- is no sign of weakness. It’s healthy to re-evaluate and adjust based on evidence, context and current realities, whether you’re a CEO, a board member, a manager or just someone working on their personal life.
- Don't confuse efficacy with morality. The time and place dictates the idea's effectiveness, not its goodness or badness. Dial-up internet was incredibly useful and now it's not. A Mars colony is rather ridiculous right now, but maybe someday it's won't be. Murder, on the other hand, is bad because it's something society agrees is morally wrong. Being really good at murder doesn't make it a good policy.
Don’t be afraid of a rethink
Doing something that works and later deciding, “This isn’t working anymore,” doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Even if you're not embarrassed, you might feel isolated or insecure. That's understandable! But you're likely not the only one facing change. Find people you can trust to share your concerns, your analysis, your vulnerabilities. Don't automatically do whatever they recommend, but listen with an open mind. And thank them for their help.
What if you've examined your situation (whatever it is) and talked with trusted advisers. What if you realize, “Oh my God, I was doing everything wrong.” Again, so what? An openness to new ideas, new methods and new attitudes is an important step on the path to getting it right.
The writer Kathryn Schulz talks about our societal fear of being in error in her book “Being Wrong” and why it’s misguided:
“Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”
Keep your values in mind
One last thought: Strategies and tactics are much more malleable than values and principles. That’s not to say you can’t change your mind on values, but be careful and deliberate. As I recently wrote: "Values without definition, practice and accountability lead to bad actors, a lack of integrity."
Switching from iOS to Android is a matter of convenience, economics and fashion. Your core values should be more sturdy and resilient. So, embrace the possibility of change, but don’t confuse who you are for what you’re trying to get done.