Service resilience is too often overlooked. Most organizations don't even have a name for it, don't measure it, don't plan for it.
I totally understand our focus on putting on a perfect show, on delighting people, on shipping an experience that's wonderful.
But how do you and your organization respond/react when something doesn't go right?
Because that's when everyone is paying attention.
We can choose to define ourselves (our smarts, our brand, our character) on who rejects us.
Or we can choose to focus on those that care enough to think we matter.
Carrying around a list of everyone who thinks you're not good enough is exhausting.
I started the quiz team at my high school. Alas, I didn't do so well at the tryouts, so I ended up as the coach, but we still made it to the finals.
It took me thirty years to figure out the secret of getting in ahead of the others who also knew the answer (because the right answer is no good if someone else gets the buzz):
You need to press the buzzer before you know the answer.
As soon as you realize that you probably will be able to identify the answer by the time you're asked, buzz. Between the time you buzz and the time you're supposed to speak, the answer will come to you. And if it doesn't, the penalty for being wrong is small compared to the opportunity to get it right.
This feels wrong in so many ways. It feels reckless, careless and selfish. Of course we're supposed to wait until we're sure before we buzz. But the waiting leads to a pattern of not buzzing.
No musician is sure her album is going to be a hit. No entrepreneur is certain that every hire is going to be a good one. No parent can know that every decision they make is going to be correct.
What separates this approach from mere recklessness is the experience of discovering (in the right situation) that buzzing makes your work better, that buzzing helps you dig deeper, that buzzing inspires you.
The habit is simple: buzz first, buzz when you're confident that you've got a shot. Buzz, buzz, buzz. If it gets out of hand, we'll let you know.
The act of buzzing leads to leaping, and leaping leads to great work. Not the other way around.
"Too big to listen."
Great organizations listen to our frustrations, our hopes and our dreams.
Alas, when a company gets big enough, it starts to listen to the requirements of its shareholders and its best-paid executives instead.
Too big to listen is just a nanometer away from "Too big to care."
Fighters and pugilists are different.
The fighter fights when she has to, when she's cornered, when someone or something she truly believes in is threatened. It's urgent and it's personal.
The pugilist, on the other hand, skirmishes for fun. The pugilist has a hobby, and the hobby is being oppositional.
The pugilist can turn any statement, quote or event into an opportunity to have an urgent argument, one that pins you to the ground and makes you question just about anything.
Instead of playing chess, the pugilist is playing you.
Pugilists make great TV commentators. And they even seem like engaged participants in meetings, for a while. Over time, we realize that they are more interested in seeing what reactions they can get, rather than in actually making positive change happen.
A committed pugilist has a long list of clever ways to bait you into an argument. You'll never win, of course, because the argument itself is what the pugilist seeks. Call it out, give it a name, share this post and then walk away. Back to work actually making things better.
It's tempting to do what's been done before, certain in the belief that if you do it, it'll be a little better and a little more popular, merely because you're the one doing it.
In fact, though, that's unlikely. You'll care more, but it's unlikely the market will.
Consider the alternative, which is choosing to turn the question upside down, to do it backwards, sideways, or in a significantly more generous or risky way.
Remarkable often starts with the problem you set out to solve and the way you choose to solve it.
Ask a hundred students at Harvard Business School if they expect to be up for a good job when they graduate, and all of them will say "yes."
Ask a bright ten-year old girl if she expects to have a chance at a career as a mathematician, and the odds are she's already been brainwashed into saying "no."
Expectations aren't guarantees, but expectations give us the chance to act as if, to trade now for later, to invest in hard work and productive dreaming on our way to making an impact.
Expectations work for two reasons. First, they give us the enthusiasm and confidence to do hard work. Second, like a placebo, they subtly change our attitude, and give us the resilience to make it through the rough spots. "Eventually" gives us the energy to persist.
When our culture (our media, our power structures, our society) says, "people who look like you shouldn't expect to have a life like that," we're stealing. Stealing from people capable of achieving more, and stealing from our community as well. How can our society (that's us) say, "we don't expect you to graduate, we don't expect you to lead, we don't expect you to be trusted to make a difference?"
When people are pushed to exchange their passion and their effort for the false solace of giving up and lowering their expectations, we all lose. And (almost as bad, in the other direction) when they substitute the reality of expectations for the quixotic quest of impossibly large, unrealistic dreams, we lose as well. Disneyesque dreams are a form of hiding, because Prince Charming isn't coming any time soon.
Expectations are not guarantees. Positive thinking doesn't guarantee results, all it offers is something better than negative thinking.
Expectations that don't match what's possible are merely false dreams. And expectations that are too small are a waste. We need teachers and leaders and peers who will help us dig in deeper and discover what's possible, so we can push to make it likely.
Expectations aren't wishes, they're part of a straightforward equation: This work plus that effort plus these bridges lead to a likelihood of that outcome. It's a clear-eyed awareness of what's possible combined with a community that shares your vision.
It's easy to manipulate the language of expectations and turn it into a bootstrapping, you're-on-your-own sort of abandonment. But expectation is contagious. Expectation comes from our culture. And most of all, expectation depends on support—persistent, generous support to create a place where leaping can occur.
There are limits all around us, stereotypes, unlevel playing fields, systemic challenges where there should be support instead. A quiet but intensely corrosive impact these injustices create is in the minds of the disenfranchised, in their perception of what is possible.
The mirror we hold up to the person next to us is one of the most important pictures she will ever see.
If we can help just one person refuse to accept false limits, we've made a contribution. If we can give people the education, the tools and the access they need to reach their goals, we've made a difference. And if we can help erase the systemic stories, traditions and policies that push entire groups of people to insist on less, we've changed the world.
A far better question to ask (the student, the athlete, the salesperson, the programmer…) is, "what did you learn?"
Learning compounds. Usually more reliably than winning does.
Those critical choices you made then, they were based on what you knew about the world as it was.
But now, you know more and the world is different.
So why spend so much time defending those choices?
We don't re-decide very often, which means that most of our time is spent doing, not choosing. And if the world isn't changing (if you're not changing) that doing makes a lot of sense.
The pain comes from falling in love with your status quo and living in fear of making another choice, a choice that might not work.
You might have been right then, but now isn't then, it's now.
If the world isn't different, no need to make a new decision.
The question is, "is the world different now?"
…is that your hands are then too full to hold onto anything else.
It might be the competition or a technology or the lousy things that someone did a decade ago. None of it is going to get better as a result of revisiting the grudge.