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Identity and ideas

We rarely do or say something intentionally that surprises us. That’s because we are in intimate contact with the noise in our heads–we spend our days looking in the mirror, listening to our inner voice and defining our point of view. “That’s not the sort of thing I would say or do…”

We call this internal familiarity our ‘identity.’ If it gets lost (when someone joins a cult, for example), it’s noteworthy and can be tragic.

If our ideas are equated to our identity, then talking about ideas is very much the act of talking about yourself.

And thus the tension is created. Our culture and our economy are built on ideas. Many of our society’s ideas get better over time (you don’t go to the barber for bloodletting any longer–it’s what probably killed George Washington) and yet some of them get stuck. Often, we need a generation to step away before an entrenched idea begins to fade, because the people who have been embracing that toxic or outlived idea see it as part of their identity.

As the media realizes that they can improve profits by narrowcasting ideas to people who embrace them as part of who they are, it gets increasingly difficult to have a constructive conversation about many ideas–because while people are able and sometimes eager to change some of their less personal ideas, we rarely seek to change our identity.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle and a piece you thought fit in a spot where it doesn’t actually fit, that missed fit is viewed as useful information. Go ahead and try the piece in a different spot–that’s not a threat to your identity as a puzzle solver. In fact, your identity as a puzzle solver is tied up in the idea that if the evidence shows a piece didn’t fit, you simply try a new spot, you don’t feel threatened or disrespected.

The most successful problem solvers are people who have embraced this simple method–your current idea isn’t your identity, it’s simply a step closer to a solution to the problem in front of you.

One way to define our identity is to fall in love with an idea (often one that was handed to us by a chosen authority). Another is to refuse to believe our identity is embodied in an idea, and instead embrace a method for continually finding and improving our ideas.

A long lead time

Books are written almost a year before they come out.

Tweets take about 24 seconds to launch.

Which world would you like to live in, book-world or twitter-world?

If you were designing an ad campaign for your project that would run in three years, what would it say? Can you write the resume or Linkedin profile you’d like to have in seven years? Seven months?

Long lead times force us to focus on the destination itself, not the bumps or the detours.

The deadline for submitting your long lead time announcement is midnight tonight. A chance to hurry up and then stick with it.

“Take your time”

It means two very different things.

When a person or a marketer takes your time, they’re stealing. Something irretrievable is gone. If your time is taken for selfish reasons, if it’s wasted, there’s no good way to get it back.

On the other hand, when you have enough confidence to take your own time, to take your time to be present, to do the work, to engage with what’s in front of you right now, it’s a gift.

This is precisely what time is for.

We’re not in a race to check off as many boxes as we possibly can before we are out of time. Instead, we have the chance to use the time to create moments that matter. Because they connect us, because they open doors, because the moments, added up, create a life.

How to miss a deadline

In my earlier post, I opened a discussion about how to avoid missing a deadline.

But what happens if you can’t avoid it?

Projects are always on the frontier, combining elements and ideas and effort to do something that’s not been done before, not quite the way we’re doing it here and now.

And so, bold projects sometimes fail to make their deadline. Even if we build systems and use buffers, sometimes it doesn’t work.

Some thoughts:

  1. Don’t wait until the last minute. Wishful thinking is sometimes confused with optimism, but you probably knew more than four days before the deadline that you weren’t going to meet expectations. If people are building dependencies around your promises, then waiting until you have no choice simply makes the miss worse. Because not only are you late, but you were hiding it.
  2. Don’t minimize the problem. You’re late. Clearly. So say it. Loud and (not quite) proud. By owning the original promise and then being clear that you’re aware of the miss, you help the people who were counting on you feel seen and respected.
  3. Create alternatives. This isn’t always possible, but when it is, it usually leads to better relationships. If an airline can’t have a plane in a certain spot at a certain time, it goes a long way if they do the work of finding all 100 people inconvenienced a new plan, instead of putting that on them, one at a time.
  4. There’s a difference between seeing the damage (and working to ameliorate it) and accepting shame and blame. It’s clear that the future is unclear, and that things happen. If you can clearly outline what you’ve seen and what you’ve learned, it doesn’t make your clients feel better if you also fall on a sword–because if it’s not your fault, the sword is meaningless theater. And if it is your fault, it’s worth telling us that as well.
  5. In short, there’s no good way to make a missed deadline meaningless to the person who was counting on you. Being counted on is a gift. If you want to be counted on next time, best to invest early and often in making that deadline, and then, in the rare cases when it’s not enough, treating your clients with the respect that you’d like to receive in a similar situation.

[Even better, check out out my previous post and create approaches so you don’t miss the deadline in the first place.]

How (not) to miss a deadline

Deadlines are valuable, and deadlines are expensive.

Organized systems and societies need deadlines. It would be impossible to efficiently build a house if the subcontractors could deliver their goods or services whenever it were convenient for them. Movie studios and book publishers schedule their releases months in advance to allow distribution teams to plan their work. Software is dependent on subsystems that have to be in place before the entire program can work.

Along with the value that synchronized deliverables create, there are also real costs. Not simply the organizational cost of a missed deadline, but the significant damage to a reputation or brand that happens when a promise isn’t kept. And there’s a human cost–the stress and strain that comes from working to keep a promise that we might not have personally made, or that might be more difficult because someone else didn’t perform their part of the dance.

In the wide-open race for attention and commitments, the standards of deadlines have been wavering. For forty years, Saturday Night Live has gone on at 11:30. Not, as its creator says, because it’s ready, but because it’s 11:30. That’s the deal.

On Kickstarter, this sort of sacrosanct deadline is rare indeed. “This charger will ship in six weeks!” they say, when actually, it’s been more than a year with no shipment date in sight. Or with venture capitalists and other backers. “We’re going to beat the competition to market by three months.” Sometimes it feels like if the company doesn’t bring wishful thinking to the table, they won’t get funded. Given that choice, it’s no wonder that people get desperate. Wishful thinking might not be called lying, but it is. We should know better.

Earning the reputation as someone (a freelancer, a marketer, a company, a leader) who doesn’t miss a deadline is valuable. And it doesn’t happen simply because you avoid sleeping and work like a dog. That’s the last resort of someone who isn’t good at planning.

Here are some basic principles that might help with the planning part:

  1. If you’re competing in an industry where the only way to ‘win’ is to lie about deadlines, realize that competing in that industry is a choice, and accept that you’re going to miss deadlines and have to deal with the emotional overhead that comes with that.
  2. Knowing that it’s a choice, consider picking a different industry, one where keeping deadlines is expected and where you can gain satisfaction in creating value for others by keeping your promises.
  3. Don’t rely on false deadlines as a form of incentive. It won’t work the same on everyone, which means that some people will take you at your word and actually deliver on time, while others will assume that it was simply a guideline. It’s more efficient to be clear and to help people understand from the outset what you mean by a deadline. The boy cried wolf but the villagers didn’t come.
  4. At the same time, don’t use internal deadlines as a guaranteed component of your external promises. A project with no buffers is certain to be late. Not just likely to be late, but certain. Better buffers make better deadlines.
  5. Embrace the fact that delivering something on a certain date costs more than delivering it whenever it’s ready. As a result, you should charge more, perhaps a great deal more, for the value that your promise of a deadline creates. And then spend that money to make sure the deadline isn’t missed.
  6. Deadlines aren’t kept by people ‘doing their best.’ Keeping a deadline requires a systemic approach to dependencies and buffers and scenario planning. If you’re regularly cutting corners or burning out to meet deadlines, you have a systems problem.
  7. The antidote to feature creep isn’t occasional pruning. That’s emotionally draining and a losing battle. The answer is to actively restructure the spec, removing or adding entire blocks of work. “That will be in the next version,” is a totally acceptable answer, particularly when people are depending on this version to ship on time.
  8. A single deadline is a deadline that will certainly not be met. But if you can break down your big deadline into ten or fifteen intermediate milestones, you will know about your progress long before it’s too late to do something about it.
  9. The Mythical Person-Month is a serious trap. Nine people, working together in perfect harmony, cannot figure out how to have a baby in one month. Throwing more people at a project often does not speed it up. By the time you start to solve a deadline problem this way, it might be too late. The alternative is to staff each component of your project with the right number of people, and to have as many components running in parallel as possible.
  10. Bottlenecks are useful, until they aren’t. If you need just one person to approve every element of your project, it’s unlikely you can run as many things in parallel as you could. The alternative is to have a rigorous spec created in advance, in which many standards are approved before you even begin the work.
  11. Discussions about timing often devolve into issues of trust, shame and effort. That’s not nearly as helpful as separating conversations about system structure and data from the ones about commitment and oomph.
  12. Hidden problems don’t get better. In a hyper-connected world, there’s no technical reason why the project manager can’t know what the team in the field knows about the state of the project.

Like most things that matter, keeping deadlines is a skill, and since it’s a skill, we can learn it.

[More on this in my next post on what to do if you can’t avoid breaking your promise.]

Date certain

This is very different from “someday.”

Choose any date you like, as far in the future as you like. But a date, circled on the calendar.

By that date, what will you have implemented? What will be in place? Where will you be, what will you be doing?

Way more powerful than someday.

Sunk costs, creativity and your Practice

“Ignore sunk costs” is the critical lesson of useful decision making.

The thing you earned, that you depend on, that was hard to do–it’s a gift from your former self. Just because you have a law degree, a travel agency or the ability to do calligraphy in Cyrillic doesn’t mean that your future self is obligated to accept that gift.

We hold on to the old competencies and our hard-earned status roles far longer than we should. The only way to be creative is to do something new, and the path to something new requires leaving something else behind.

New decisions based on new information are at the heart of leadership. But you can’t make those decisions if you’re also busy calculating how much the old decisions cost you.

Creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.

Do that often enough and you can create a practice around it. It’s not about being gifted or touched by the muse. Instead, our creative practice (whether you’re a painter, a coach or a fundraiser) is a commitment to the problems in front of us and the people who will benefit from a useful solution to them.

I built a workshop on creativity that’s run by the folks at Akimbo. The fourth session starts this week. If you’re ready to get serious about your art, whatever form it takes, I hope you’ll check it out.

Industrial scale and brittleness

Look at that banana, just look at it.

Bananas are a modern miracle. They’re cheap, nutritious, and readily available.

And just about every banana you’ve ever eaten (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere) came from the same tree.

Not just a similar tree, the way oak trees are all similar to one another. The same exact tree, which was planted in a hothouse in England about a hundred and fifty years ago. The Cavendish banana tree (named after the family that’s now called the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire) is sterile. It has no seeds. The only way to grow one is to take a cutting from an existing tree and basically grow a clone.

Because the tree was optimized for yield and taste, we end up with plentiful, delicious, cheap bananas.

Until a blight arrives. And the virus that’s just around the corner is almost here, and it will wipe out every single Cavendish tree on Earth in just a few more years.

There have been real environmental side effects all along, but at scale, they become impossible to ignore.

Or consider the legal system in my country. It grew from a fairly informal and resilient (if not always fair) way to keep the peace and settle disputes into a behemoth, which combines the prison-industrial complex with a very expensive civil suit system that’s beneficial to many of the key players but ultimately insensitive to those that can’t use it to their advantage.

Check out Rohan Pavuluri’s new TED talk about bankruptcy, or Bryan Stevenson’s urgent talk on criminal justice.

People aren’t bananas, and the injustices that the legal system has created have always been shameful. But at scale, immense scale, they’re even worse.

Industrial scale seems to pay off. Until it doesn’t. And then it’s on us to change it, while there’s still time.

The consequence

Attitude follows action far more often than action follows attitude.

We change our mood as a result of how we act. If you want to feel a certain way, begin by acting as if you do. On the other hand, if you truly want to accomplish something, waiting for the mood to strike is ineffective.

Code words

That’s all language is.

“Banana” is not a fruit. It’s a word that we use in English to identify a fruit.

And code words work beautifully as long as the person you’re seeking to communicate with understands the word the way you think they do.

Often, when people with goodwill and shared values end up disagreeing, it’s because they didn’t understand the code words that were being used.

In fact, it might be the only reason.