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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.

Smart-adjacent

You may have seen the miracle sudoku video that spread this week–a good sort of virus, one based on an idea. About half a million people have watched Simon spend nearly half an hour solving a puzzle. No anger, no violence, no innuendo. Merely applied thinking about numbers.

How did it spread?

There are millions of people who aren’t doing important medical research, creating (or solving) fascinating puzzles or writing breakthrough Broadway shows–but who are eager to find and amplify these ideas.

Culture is created by these amplifiers.

“People like us talk about things like this.” A good idea isn’t worth much if it doesn’t reach people who can benefit from it.

Instead of the quack doctor who goes on TV in a craven attempt to be famous at any cost, they’re willing to be the patient, thoughtful doctor who reads the research and shares useful information, even if the ratings aren’t as high. This is the long-term influencer who earns the trust of a small circle of people. Mostly, it’s people who care enough to model the behavior they’d like to see from those around them.

Three days ago, Google once again used its monopoly power and opaque methods to shut down a much-beloved podcast app for ridiculous reasons. Only the outcry from smart-adjacent voices got them to back down. We get what we talk about and we talk about what we pay attention to.

Or consider this 14-minute documentary about how Harley-Davidson has relentlessly made bad decisions in serving its customers. Nearly a million people have watched it (that’s as many as a typical cable TV show) because people who didn’t make it cared enough to spread it.

We keep seeing proof that cable news and other media don’t simply report the culture, they create it. Each of us now has our own microphone and network, and we get to decide what to program and what to consume.

It turns out that spreading the news about things that are smart is, in itself, smart.

“I’ve dealt with this before”

There’s a huge gulf between earned expertise and strong opinion.

Knowing what others who have come before have done (and having successfully done it yourself) is demonstrably more effective than simply acting as if your opinion matters. Whether you’re dealing a lawsuit, cancer or a sous vide machine, you’re better off talking with someone who has earned their experience.

There’s a reason that there are very few loud amateur locksmiths. Either the lock opens or it doesn’t. Untrained voices tend to reserve their work for endeavors in which the results are either difficult to measure or happen far in the future.

Pique blindness

If you can study something behavioral on college students, you can bet it gets studied a lot. It’s easy and cheap to run these sorts of tests. Which is how we came to understand the power of pique and the risk of habituation.

It turns out that if you see something over and over again, you start to ignore it. And so marketers of all stripes work to pique your interest by making funky little adjustments. They’ll change the speed limit to 57, or hang a sign upside down. In one study, they found that a scientist dressed as a panhandler raised more money when he asked for 37 cents instead of a quarter. (No word about what happens when a panhandler dresses like a scientist.) And so, selfish marketers will put ʇuǝƃɹn in the subject line of an email that couldn’t be less urgent…

This leads to pique blindness.

Just as bright white snow can overwhelm our retina so we can’t see very well, all of this pique to fight habituation has a downside. It’s creating a culture of hustle and noise that only gets worse. Because then people start using pique blindness as an excuse for ever more pique.

One of the real dangers of pique blindness is that we’ll only end up seeing drama, breaking news and the crisis of the moment. The first thing we need to do is not bite the hook. Refuse to reward anyone or anything that uses pique to get your attention. Turn up the filters and walk away. The important stuff will get through even if we filter out some of the urgent.

Even more important: as Joni said, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Maybe what we need to do is invest daily effort in creating pique around the good things, the important things, the things we treasure. It could be as simple as breaking our pattern, coming up with a new way to walk the dog or greet a friend… It might involve breaking a habit in which a delight has become nothing much more than a comfort.

Everyone gets 24 hours of fresh attention, refilled daily. But if we continue to abuse it, we won’t be able to see with fresh eyes and appreciate what’s been there all along.

HT to Simon Sinek for the pique.

Alternatives to perfect

“If I can’t make it perfect, is it okay if I try to make it better?”

When a project doesn’t come out precisely the way we hoped, when customer service isn’t 100%, when the reality doesn’t match the dream, then what?

One option is to embrace your failure. To have your tantrum, to become bereft, to wallow in how unfair the world is. No sense messing up a perfect moment of imperfection.

The other option is to put some effort into making an imperfect situation a little less imperfect. Perhaps, with some distance, it might even be a lot less imperfect, or even better than you were hoping for in the first place.

Imperfect is a chance for contribution, connection and improvisation. It’s a chance to see the humanity behind the moment you were spending so much energy creating.

The alternative to perfect might be better.

 

[A deadline: tomorrow is the Early Decision deadline for the summer session of the altMBA. If you’ve been waiting to see what you’re capable of, today’s a great day to begin.

In a world turned upside down, if you have the chance to level up and contribute, I hope you’ll see what’s possible.]

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