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Two kinds of system risk

When you set up a system, it helps to keep in mind what will happen if it doesn’t work. Depending on the costs of ‘not working’, you can build more resilience into the system.

In most cases, ‘not working’ isn’t catastrophic. If your toaster doesn’t work, it’s not that big a deal. You can make toast in a few days and live with limp bread in the meantime. On the other hand, if you’re on a mission to Mars, you’ll probably be glad you packed a few extra oxygen tanks, even if the cost of bringing them is quite high.

We make two mistakes when we organize a system:

  1. We get overly optimistic about the reliability of the system, and combine that with a narrative that minimizes the cost of living without it. I’d put the current state of our internet infrastructure in that camp.
  2. We get overly pessimistic about the likelihood and cost of failure. This leads us to over-engineer things, or to pay far more for redundancy than we should. Putting life jackets on airplanes is a great example of this. So is the avoidance of the last typo. It’s also one reason our medical costs are so high… the last .01% is the most expensive part.

A useful skill in executive decision making is the ability to describe resiliency and the cost of failure in non-emotional ways. Especially when it’s difficult do precisely that.



It doesn’t make you go any faster.

It doesn’t make the leader go any faster.

Tailgating creates frustration, limits your choices and isn’t safe.

If you want to make a difference, you’ll probably need to find your own lane.

Say what you want

Euphemism is easier than ever. Broad strokes, majestic language, big ideas… Mission statements and humanitarian motives.

It’s interesting to note that organized sports, one of the first places that hyperbloviation caught on, is still honest about the point of today’s game. “Our goal is to score more points than they do.”

It’s really clear what the team is trying to do.

Often, we’re so busy talking about our ideals and motivations that we forget to let our colleagues know precisely what we’re trying to do.

“Our goal is to make sure the State Senate votes no on this bill.”

“We want to sell 10,000 more packages this month.”

“Actually, all our shareholders care about is making a bigger quarterly sales number.”

The problem with focusing on only the short-term is that it leads people to cut corners, to create negative outcomes and to crumble in the face of change. Our overarching mission matters.

But being honest to yourself matters too.

If your team regularly suspends your stated overarching mission with thinly disguised emergencies in search of an outcome you’re not that proud of, it’s time to admit that the emergencies are what you actually do.

Here’s a simple test: If a competitor came along who could achieve your stated mission faster and more effectively than you could, would you cheer them on?

If you’re not proud of what you actually do, perhaps you can explore doing something else instead.

Toward or away?

Today, will you stand outside your boss’s office hoping that she’ll meet with you about your new project, or will you hunker down in your cube hoping she doesn’t notice you?

Will you raise your hand in class hoping to get some airtime, or will you sit in the back, avoiding it?

Will you track down a recalcitrant customer and see if you can make things better, or will you duck voice mail in case they’re trying to track you down?

It’s possible to spend your entire day moving towards something you seek. Alternatively, you can spend your time running away.

This is the fork in the road that represents the altMBA. Tomorrow’s the first priority deadline for the October session of our proven workshop, and this is the last session before the tuition increases.

If you’re ready to start moving, we’re ready to help.

Squeaky wheels

Do you really want the grease?

Or would you rather make things better?

The best way to contribute to a community or a brand isn’t by complaining.

It’s by making things better.

Taking responsibility (without authority) and creating a positive cycle of generous action. Leading by example. Finding a small corner where you can make a difference–and then making a difference.

We keep optimizing our systems for squeaky wheels.

But often, all we get is a patch, not a fix.

Which sort of presentation is this?

If you’re going to do a presentation (instead of sending a memo)…

If you’re going to do a sales call (instead of staying home)…

it’s because you want to make a change happen. What action are you seeking?

There are two kinds of changes you could work with:

1. There’s already a goal and a set of commitments, and here’s an update as to how to take appropriate action to reach that goal.

Example: The GPS in your car. It knows you want to go to Cleveland. It’s giving you an update about where to turn to get there, or an alert about traffic up ahead that will be relevant to your journey. Note the GPS isn’t asking you about why you want to go to Cleveland nor is it trying to get you to go somewhere else.

2. The presenter wants a change in priorities, to want something different.

Example: I know that you’ve never given to a charity like this one before, but once you see the urgency of what’s happening, it will change your mind.

If you’re doing a GPS update, then your presentation ought to be focused on communicating the facts and changes we know we need to take action on.

On the other hand, if you’re doing a presentation about changing people’s minds, please spare us the irrelevant coordinates and turn by turn announcements. You came for a change, please ask for it.

Paid to learn

The rationale for traditional education is that more learning gets you a better job, and a job gets you paid, which makes the learning a worthwhile investment.

But what happens after you get that job?

In some organizations, that’s the end of that. You might pick up experience and wisdom on the job, but the short-sighted organization may view ongoing learning as too expensive.

The insight is to realize that stuck employees are far more expensive than educated ones.

More and more organizations have come to understand that paying their employees to learn, to really dig and learn something, is a bargain. An inspired and insightful employee is going to produce far more value than one who’s simply being ignored.

And employees are beginning to understand that the time and effort they put into continuing education comes back to them for the rest of their careers, because once you learn it, it’s something you can use again and again.

We put together the kernel of a list of companies that actively reimburse their people for education. And a page with an invitation for L&D leaders to consider the altMBA as a tool for developing real skills among their key employees.

Better decisions, emotional labor and the confidence that comes from education are the future of work. Either you’re on that path or you’re falling behind.

Judging a day by the weather

It seems more productive to judge tomorrow by something more relevant, useful and in our control than whether or not it’s raining, doesn’t it?

We can judge a day by how many tools we get to use, how many people are open to hearing from us, how many problems are available to be solved.

Weather, or anything else that’s not in our short-term control, can become an excuse and a distraction. If you can’t do anything about it, it might not be worth your focus and energy.

We can begin by embracing the fact that we get a whole day to make an impact. We can open doors, find new resources and create value. In spite of or because of the prevailing conditions…

What are you drawn to?

All moths are the same.

For the right species, if you light a candle, the moths will show up. They’re drawn to it for little-understood reasons related to how they’re wired.

Just as moths seem to be the same, humans manage to be different.

How do you spend your unscheduled time? What distracts you or moves up your priority list?

Perhaps you’re drawn to danger.

To conflict.

To hedonistic pleasure.

Perhaps you’re drawn to take actions that avoid criticism.

To shiny objects or new opportunities.

To crossing things off the endless to-do list.

It could be that you can’t resist fixing a typo in someone else’s work, or that you’d rather win at a team sport than just about anything.

Maybe you want to do things that feel safe. Some people want to do things that actually are safe.

For many, it’s either the avoidance of trouble or the desire for praise, but rarely both at the same time.

It could be that the highest priority is to fix what appears to be broken. Or it might be to avoid what appears broken and to run to the new, unsullied opportunity instead.

You might need to turn off all the lights and make all the beds before you leave the house. And you might be willing to trade everything just to be sure that the world at large doesn’t think for a moment that you’ve faltered in your work.

The extraordinary variety of our urgencies makes it obvious that we’re not moths. The opportunity lies in understanding if what we’re drawn to is actually helping us achieve the outcomes we seek.

Now with recipes….

Over the last few months, I’ve added a few recipes to the pages of this blog, mostly so I have them handy, partly because I haven’t found anything like them online.

If you want insight into the official lunch foods in the office, here you go:

Daily Dal (this is as close the perfect food I know. Vegan, easy, filling and delicious. You can serve an office full of people. Buy the spices once and you’ll have enough for months). We serve this with dosa made on the cast iron pizza pan below.

Almost raw brownies. They’re pretty unbelievable, almost as good as the ones at By the Way.

PS a thirteen-year-old post on compromises that’s relevant.

Also, a page of kitchen items that can completely change the way you cook… Have fun.