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Meeting spec (doing the minimum)

Two ways of saying the same thing.

If the bridge needs to hold 20,000 pound vehicles, the client isn’t interested in paying extra for you to build it to hold 30,000 pound vehicles. The spec is clear–15,000 is unacceptable, and 30,000 isn’t worth a penny extra in steel, concrete or pilings.

But when we’re bringing our human skills to the work, the spec for a job might state that we need to sit at the customer service counter from 9 to 5, but because “be really nice to people,” is hard to quantify it can feel like an extra if we’re seeking to do as little as possible.

Why do extra? After all, the industrial system has squeezed everything it can out of front-line workers. It has taken without offering much in return, stripping people of dignity and respect and treating them like cogs.

But acting like a cog in return is hardly a useful form of revenge.

Showing up with more than the minimum might turn the job into more than a job. When we show up because we can, when we’re extending ourselves as a matter of choice, we create space. The space to own the work, to personalize it, and to turn it into more than getting by.

The current crisis is a vivid reminder of how empty a job focused on getting by really is. Because getting by is a lousy way to spend our days. Playwrights, painters and committed professionals don’t ask, “how little can I get away with?” They view the work as a chance to make a difference instead.

Doing work we’re proud of is a fine alternative to being seen as less than human. And spending our days doing as much human work as we can is far more appealing than hoping to do as little as possible.

Applying effort

How will you spend your resources? If you want to open a can of tomato juice, you can squeeze the sides of the can as hard as you can, for as long as you can, but it’s unlikely to open. You can also focus all of your energy on a very tiny point and perhaps, with the right tools, make a small puncture. But it won’t help you get the juice out. What you’ll need is a can opener, focusing your force at the right sized spot with the right pressure.

The same is true for the way we bring an idea to the world. One thing you could do is spam a billion people, once. Another is to identify a single individual and spend a year bringing this person just the right message, with relentless frequency.

You’re probably better off with something in between.

We can allocate our resources into a portfolio. Even if we don’t know precisely where to put the effort, a focus on the right categories pays off. Too often, we aim too wide (it feels more deniable). And sometimes, more rarely, we aim too narrowly.

Every day, we use our resources to make change happen. Which means that every day we get to choose.

Leaky roofs

In many situations, a leaky roof is worse than no roof at all.

If there’s no roof, we’re not surprised or disappointed if we get hit with some raindrops. But a roof that leaks has raised expectations and then failed to meet them.

Promising us a roof and then breaking that promise might be worse than no roof at all.

Three paths for a soloist

Consider one of three paths. Which works for you?

  1. Honor the noise in your head. Make the work you believe you were born to make. Create things you can visualize but haven’t seen yet. Do it without regard for critics, the market or the math of it all. It’s your handiwork.
  2. Embrace your market. Make what it needs. Earn a seat at the table by developing an asset, and leverage it to create real value for those you serve. Price it accordingly.
  3. Stay busy. Make slightly better than average work, for less than average pricing.

It’s difficult to see how you can do all three at the same time for the same kind of client. All three choices are valid, any could work for you, but it’s worth choosing.

Dancing with tools

How good are you at Google Sheets?

Can you write a query? A filter? Do you know how to install add-on tools to trim extra cells or create a mail merge? If you wanted to learn those things, do you know how to find out how?

It’s an interesting litmus test.

Sheets is free. It’s not particularly difficult to use. You can explore it in private, with no fear of screwing up. And it’s widely applicable to just about any career or community work you might choose to do.

The teenager across the street is far better off teaching herself Sheets than she is doing whatever busywork they’re handing her during the day.

If you get good at a type of technology, you’ll find yourself using it often. On the other hand, if you decide that you’re somehow untalented at it (which is nonsense) or don’t take the time, then you’ll have sacrificed leverage and confidence that were offered to you.

Of course, it’s not just Sheets, or the web, or even computers. It’s a posture of possibility when it comes to the tools we’re able to use.

We can ignore the tools that we have access to. We can fear them. We can understand them.

(And, after we understand them, we’re able to hire someone else to use them on our behalf.)

We can even master them.

Your defining moment

It’s easy to wait for it. The movies have taught us that when the music swells and the chips are down, that’s when leaders arrive and when heroes are made.

It turns out, that’s not how it works.

Our work is what happens in all the moments. Leadership doesn’t simply appear when the script announces it does: it is the hard work of showing up when we’re not expected to, of seeing what’s possible when few are willing to believe.

Your defining moment is whenever you decide it is, and you get a new chance to lead every day.

Two months ago, we ran our first session of Rising Talent, a special session of the altMBA by and for emerging leaders at Fortune 500 companies.

Our month-long sprint connected senior leaders from SAP, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Brands, Citi, General Mills, Lululemon, NBA, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Adobe, Audible, Barclays, Chipotle, Delta, Trane Technologies, Frost Bank, Kellogg Company, Kraft Heinz, MetLife, Qualcomm, Shopify, Slack and Warby Parker. Even though the world was already turning upside down, this extraordinary cohort showed up and did the work, even as they were contributing at a high level at their day jobs.

The results reinforced what we’ve been saying at the altMBA for the last five years. Possibility is where you find it. We each have more to offer than the world expects. And growth is something we’re capable of, as soon as we’re committed to seeing what we can contribute.

The secret of our workshops is the level of commitment that our students bring. Even in times of turmoil. Enrollment opens the door to action instead of compliance.

Our current worldwide tragedy is a slog, but it will have another side. And the organizations that thrive will be the ones that don’t rely on top-down management to go forward. It’s peer-to-peer leadership and innovation that produces resilience, and leadership that turns any moment into a moment where we can make things better.

Ishita Gupta has written more about the Rising Talent altMBA here.

Craftspeople and time

Tell us when you’re going to finish.

Tell us if you fall behind.

Don’t make us ask.

It’s difficult for a small organization or a dedicated craftsperson to run an operation as punctually as a large bureaucracy. After all, the bureaucracy exists mainly to be sure that deadlines are honored and variances are not exceeded.

Your customers are aware of this. It’s one reason that they chose you–because you’re doing the work yourself, you’re a person, not an industry.

Don’t hide this unless you can hide it completely.

It’s amazing how much slack people will give you if you’re proactive about what you see and what you know. No need to make promises you can’t keep, and no need to hide from the promises you’ve made.

We’re buying the process from you, not just what you’re making.

A small business isn’t simply a little version of a big business

Fewer meetings, fewer resources, fewer constraints.

The biggest advantage that a small business has is that the owner can look customers in the eye. And vice versa.

Instead of policies, groupthink and leverage, the way forward for a small business might be the very thing that fueled you in the start: find out what people need and help them get it. Right away.

It’s never been easy to be a small business and it’s even more difficult right now. But resilience and flexibility go together.

The first rule remains: figure out what people need and bring it to them.

A community of practice

Learning happens mostly outside the classroom.

Learning is the difficult work of experiencing incompetence on our way to mastery.

And learning opens the door to identity.

When someone says, “I am a nurse”, they’ve taken their learning and certification, combined it with their livelihood and announced it as their identity.

And this all happens from community. The standards and practices, the support, the status roles. People like us do things like this.

If you’re a Maine wooden-boat builder, you do things a certain way. The ocean is the same water that a boat builder in Manila would put their boat on, but the boat is different because the community is different.

Even the way we think about formal education, accreditation and contribution is driven by the community of practice we are part of.

Communities have often been an accident of birth. Built by geography and parentage, you established your identity and your learning long before you went to school. Now, of course, this is changing.

Communities of practice have been written about for decades, but they’re being transformed and amplified by the persistent and permeable nature of the net. When we surround ourselves with a community, it’s inevitable that it changes our identity.

Too often, we choose our community by default. The social network sucks us in, or we’re picked for a certain dodgeball team or cadre at school. We have the chance, though, to do it with intention instead.

I’ve come to realize that the circles that we’re building at Akimbo are in fact communities of practice. A powerful, productive identity that people can choose to seek out. Click here to see a preview our next one–for people who are ready to write.

And here’s a bonus video, a short rant for the Akimbo podcast that I filmed last summer. In whichever hemisphere you’re in, enjoy the new season and the possibility it brings.

Our latest launches in a week or two. Find out more here.

Waiting and worrying

It’s easy for us to choose to worry. The world is upside down, the slog continues, a tragedy unevenly but widely distributed.

Worry takes a lot of effort. And worry, unlike focus, learning or action, accomplishes nothing of value.

And, at the same time, due to the time-horizon of the pandemic, it’s also tempting for us to simply wait. To wait for things to get back to normal. But all the time we’re spending waiting (for a normal that is unlikely to be just like it was) is time we’re not spending learning, leading and connecting.

Waiting is, sort of by definition, a waste of time. But time is scarce, so wasting it is a shameful act.

If we decided to simply reduce our waiting and worrying allocation by 50%, just imagine how much we could discover, how many skills we could learn, how dramatically attitudes could shift.

We can still wait (even though time will pass either way). And we can still worry (even though it doesn’t do any good). But perhaps we can figure out how to do it less.

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