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100 compromises

Bit by bit, this is how we ended up with our organization, our job, our life.

It’s impossible to move forward without them.

And so we compromise on schedule, or quality, or on the pace of our days. We compromise on our standards, on our expectations and on what matters right now.

You can’t produce without compromises.

The question is: What would happen if you only had 98 of them?

The difference between extraordinary performance and average performance is simply in the last two compromises.

Overwriting

Decorating a car with bling, mudflaps and an airhorn is a form of signalling. You can show your peers that you have the resources to waste on superfluous adornments.

(Did you see what I just did there? I could have said, “You can show your friends that you have money to burn,” but I didn’t.)

Overwriting has a long tradition, particularly among academics. Make it a bit more complex and wordy than it needs to be. Write run-on sentences. Apparently, complicated writing must be more true.

One reason for this commitment to overwriting is that it keeps the hordes away. It’s difficult to read and hard to imagine writing. And so scarcity is created.

And yet, the articles and books that stand the test of time are straightforward. They’re memorable. They can be understood by the reader you seek to serve.

Simply write.

Write simply.

As few words as you need, but no fewer.

But simply write.

But what is this question for?

If you are asked a question in a job interview, on stage or even on a date, there’s probably a reason, and the reason might not be because the person asking wants to know your answer.

Teenagers are terrible at understanding this.

“How was your day at school,” is not a question asked to determine how a day at school was. It’s a (lousy) attempt at starting a conversation about feelings.

It requires empathy to answer a question that isn’t obviously about the answer.

The empathy to see that the person asking you has something else in mind.

Back when I was hiring dozens of people at Yoyodyne, I asked one of the hackneyed programmer interview questions (back then, it wasn’t nearly as well known.) “How many gas stations are there in the US?”

It should have been obvious that I didn’t actually want to know how many gas stations there were. That was easy to look up, and why would I ask someone I didn’t know a question like that?

Over time, I had to get more and more clear in my messaging. “Because I want to see how you figure out amorphous problems, help me understand how you would answer a question like…” Even then, it was a very powerful tell. Two people said, “I don’t have a car,” and left the interview. (That’s true, not hyperbole).

Other than name and phone number, when someone asks you a question, it’s worth considering why. Intentionally answering the real question is a great place to start.

 

[PS A question: Have you considered the altMBA?]

Junction City

A dozen states in the US have a Junction City.

A place with the claim to fame that it’s on the way to somewhere else.

You can do well being a stepping stone, a pathway, a place people go to get somewhere else.

Or you can be a place where people seek to be.

Yahoo grew as a place to stay. They built one service after another, hoping for time on site.

Google, on the other hand, began as a place to visit when you wanted to go somewhere else. That’s their entire business model. Time on site wasn’t as important to them as the accuracy of their direction. Come to leave.

Facebook, on the other hand, is organized to be a one-way street, with people staying on the site as long as possible.

Of course, it’s not simply web sites that work this way. Either we organize for junctions and trajectory, or we build our place as a destination, physically or as metaphor.

 

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Ahead of the curve

When you’re traveling ahead of the curve, it’s silly to imagine that the road will be straight and flat.

It’s actually more like a cliff. With bumps.

That’s all part of the deal. That’s why it’s not called the curve. You’re in the void, uncharted, ahead of what’s behind.

In fact, ahead of the curve, the weather is pretty lousy too. Often with catastrophic lightning storms.

On the other hand, if you choose to work inside this messy metaphor, you get the thrill of finding a new path instead of merely following the old one.

“Don’t pee in the pool”

For generations, people dumped crap into the Hudson River. The river was so large and so swift that they assumed that the effluent wouldn’t come back to haunt them.

Of course, it did, killing the oyster beds and poisoning the public.

How big does a body of water have to be before we forget that we’re swimming in it? That it all comes around…

Why are we are okay at yelling at a stranger, but not our neighbor? We will abuse the department in the other building, but not down the hall…

It turns out that the pool/river/tub that we live in is far smaller than it seems. The culture of the place we work, the vibe of the community where we live. It’s all more connected than we realize.

Roads or buildings?

If you want to make a long-term impact, build the roads.

Stewart Brand points out that if you compare two maps of downtown Boston–from 1860 and 1960, for example–virtually every single building has been replaced. Gone.

But the roads? They haven’t changed a bit. The curbs and boundaries and connections are largely as they were. With the exception of a Big Dig, a Robert Moses or an earthquake, the roads last forever.

That’s because systems built around communication, transportation and connection need near-unanimous approval to change. Buildings, on the other hand, begin to morph as soon as the owner or tenant decides they need to.

When creating an organization, a technology or any kind of culture, the roads are worth far more than the buildings.

How do we do things around here?

Surrounded by yes

It’s good news and bad news.

The web knows what you like and it’s working hard to surround you with reminders that you’re right.

This is good news because it can help an outsider feel more normal. If you have something you’re interested in, you’ll see more of it, news about it, affirmations… all of which will help you find the confidence to speak up and lead. Everywhere you look, you’ll see reminders that the world is actually just the way you hoped.

And this is bad news because it amplifies bad behavior. It normalizes behavior that successful cultures work hard to diminish. This reinforcement makes your bubble ever thicker and makes it easy to believe that in fact, the world does revolve around you.

Everyone doesn’t agree with you, the web just makes it feel that way.

Of course they’re wrong

It seems like our take on culture is that we’re right.

We shake hands properly, use a napkin properly, speak up at events properly and even greet one another on the street properly.

When I’m in a foreign city, I’m always amazed at how (friendly/offputting/aloof/intimate) everyone else is.

But of course, everyone else is right as well. They’re the home team, so they’re even more right than I am.

The conflict seems pretty obvious:

We can’t all be wrong, which means we can’t all be right, either.

Culture, by its very definition, isn’t the work of being right. It’s the work of being in sync.

Culture is people like us do things like this.

So sure, the way WE do this is ‘right’ if right means, ‘the way we do this.’ But there’s little room for absolutes. Culture abhors the absolute, it is based in the specific instead.

The next time you bump into a culture that you disagree with, perhaps it might be more useful to wonder about how it got that way, and would happen if we did it that way?

How long would it take us to go from, “this is wrong,” to, well, sure, “that’s how we do things around here”?

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