Things we’ve done before

The things we’ve done before get less scrutiny. We did them last year (or last quarter, or last month) so when the time comes to do them again, we turn the crank and start.

New things, on the other hand, get all the tough questions.  Why?

Did we know more last year about what needed to happen today than we know today? Probably not.

Rather, the things we’ve done before, collectively, add up to our sense of who we are. Organizationally, we are the sum the things we do – our programs, our initiatives, our product lines – and cutting one of those away creates a sense of loss.

Worse, that loss may arrive special delivery from the outside.  Those close to you – customers, donors, friends – are quick to say, “I miss that thing we used to do.”  But they’ll never bang on your door with nostalgia for the thing you’ve never done.

If you’re in the “creating new things” business, your job is to understand how much the people around you resist white space and how much loss will be experienced by letting go of something familiar. Then your job is to work through these tough, personal conversations, not to pretend they don’t have to happen.

Remember, old versus new isn’t a fair fight based on the merits what makes the most sense today.

Posted in adaptive leadership | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Following up on my follow up

I no longer try to reply immediately to every email. It’s not only impossible, it leaves me reactive, tired, and less productive (though very busy). I still try to be very responsive most of the time, and even this only works if I’m pithy while also being predictable and clear when it will take me longer to reply.

Everyone has their own approach to managing their communication flow, and part of the trick is to get my flow and someone else’s flow in sync. This boils down to is a series of pairings: my communication has a tone, a style, and a cadence; and, when a communication flow is working well, that evolves into a nice groove of clear mutual expectations (again, in terms of tone, style and cadence) with the people I’m in touch with regularly.

Where things get dicey is in higher stakes, infrequent communications – and these are the ones that we want to be getting right: reconnecting with a (potential) donor; reaching out to invite someone to speak at your conference; asking for advice from someone I don’t know.

The unspoken reality is that, in the absence of a strong existing relationship, the person doing the cold call (email) is taking advantage of the email medium to interrupt someone and borrow some of their attention. The only way this works is either by being exceptionally brief and clear in these sorts of notes (which seems to happen almost never), or by writing a note that itself adds value in exchange for that interruption (by being interesting or useful to the recipient, not to the sender).

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of bad email etiquette that wrongly supposes that no one will notice or care about being interrupted and asked for something. This feels like the unintended consequence of an unstated but widely-followed norm that personal emails merit a personal reply, even when they don’t.  The result is more and more people asking for things without stopping to think about how to complete the circle of the ask they are making.

Hints that this is going wrong are phrases like: “I know we haven’t been in touch for a while, but…” “I realize I’m emailing out of the blue, but…” “Things got busy on my end, but I’d like to continue the conversation we started…” and, the worst, “You don’t know me but…” Essentially, any first sentence with a “but” in it is a problem.

(Even worse is any chain that contains any of the above phrases and is followed, one day later, by some version of “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my out of the blue email that I wrote on my timeline in the hopes of getting your attention?”)

Email can be quick and immediate, but relationships are not, and trust is earned or unearned each and every day. Don’t be confused by the medium (quick, easy, immediate) and the expectations of the people who are reading your notes.  The technology has evolved very quickly, but our expectations march to a different drummer.

Posted in relationships | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Long Haul

“I’ve just heard about a great new ______ that will solve the ______ problem!”

And so goes the optimistic, well-intentioned refrain. The blanks can be straws or a well or a hospital on a boat or a cheap rugged laptop or or or….it doesn’t matter, because the trope is the same: there’s a thing that someone has invented (usually in the West) and it will finally solve such-and-such problem for good. (And, implied, it will be quick and easy!)

I’m torn about how to react to this. There’s a version of this story that I find hugely energizing, and another that feels like a modern, techno-optimistic belittling of a faraway problem, one that creates a caricature of the problem and of the people living with it…and this is never a good thing.

On the plus side, I deeply, emphatically believe that one of the biggest opportunities in the world is to get our best and brightest minds focusing on solving the most important problems of our generation. I don’t need a toothbrush that might deliver caffeine, or “mega” and “mini” sized M&Ms (thanks Tim), or a razor with 22 blades.

But just because we (sometimes) turn our attention to the big problems in the world doesn’t mean we will flip a switch and easily solve them. That great idea may be great, but after it’s made into a great product, that product will still have to be manufactured, it will have to get through customs, it will have to survive contact with customers and distribution and dealer margins and fraud and theft and warranties and repairs…usually all of this far away from reliable sources of power, good roads, good anything that makes things easier to pull off. That’s a long-term play.

The notion that any big, thorny problem will “just” be solved by a better gizmo not only runs the risk of pouring resources into the wrong initiatives, it also belittles the problem and, in so doing, belittles the people who are struggling to live without access to safe water, to affordable, reliable power, or to decent, affordable schools.

Yes, we are desperate for breakthroughs, the kinds that leverage technology platforms to deliver better information and banking services, or ones that capitalize on and accelerate declining cost curves for solar to engineer all sorts of products in new and better ways – ways that cut the costs by 100-fold while not sacrificing quality.

But achieving these sorts of breakthroughs gets us to the starting line, not to the finish line, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either naïve or is angling for a fast buck.

Getting whatever that miraculous invention is to a few billion people is always going to be a long road, one with twists and turns and endless surprising pitfalls along the way. Navigating this road will take grit and determination and perseverance beyond the capacity of most people. Indeed, this is the “sacred trust” of leadership that Chinua Achebe speaks about so eloquently, it’s what we must look for in all leaders who are making real change in the world.

The problems they are working on are not insurmountable. Not by a long shot. But there are also no quick fixes.

Indeed, everyone I know who is changing the world is in the long-haul business.

Posted in non-profits | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Something to Push Against

It is natural to seek out the roadblock, the check-point, the official approval gate: someone whose job it is to green light your idea, give you your next gig, say yes.

The search for something to push against, a hurdle to overcome, is also a chance to hide: to take small steps, to describe nothing more than the bit that could get an OK within the confines of how things work today.

At its worst, seeking out a “yes” can even  be a clever, acceptable way of being OK with a “no.” It’s a way to hide, to shift blame, to take on too little, to search for a wall to point to that we couldn’t break through.

“They wouldn’t let me do this” is often just another form of “I was afraid to see what would happen if I tried to pull this off without someone else’s cover.”

Posted in Linchpin | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

I’ve been a big fan of Atul Gawande ever since I read Complications, which is still one of my favorite books. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.  He’s also an acclaimed writer who welcomes his reader into his personal exploration of the assumptions he brought in to his surgical practice and where those assumptions have fallen short.  I enjoy Gawande’s skills as a writer and an observer, and I deeply respect his capacity for introspection, honest self-critique, and his willingness to take on medical orthodoxy even when (especially when) it’s uncomfortable.

Complications hooked me from the first page and helped me understand surgery, and the fallibility of surgeons, in a new way. I also devoured The Checklist Manifesto, which, while not nearly as enthralling as Complications, was so overwhelmingly useful that I couldn’t put it down. It explains, among other things, why they ask you seemingly stupid questions before operations (“which leg are we operating on today?” answer: because when they don’t ask this they often end up amputating or reconstructing the wrong legs) and why commercial flying is safer than driving (hint: checklists!).

I downloaded a free sample of Atul Gawande’s newest book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters Most in the End, weeks ago, but I’d hesitated to start it because, on some level, I wanted to shy away from the topic. Who wants to read a book about end of life care?  Then last week a friend told me how profoundly the book had changed his thinking, and that I had to read it. I started reading it on Friday and I’d finished it by Sunday.

Being Mortal confronts head-on a reality that we all will face: how we manage dying and death, for ourselves and our loved ones. No, it’s not a fun topic, but it is a singularly universal topic, and I’m convinced that without reading this book we will not face death well.

The basic premise of the book is that, in the West, where families have become nuclear (rather than extended), illness, dying and death have been turned over to medical professionals and to end-of-life facilities, both of which are designed to treat illness and prioritize safety rather than care for people. This is why more than 85% of people in the US died in hospitals, not at home, in the 1990s; why we sign on for third-line chemotherapy treatments that have miniscule chances of success and very likely to worsen quality of life; and why we are surprised to learn that high-quality hospice care not only increases the quality of life, it often ends up extending life as well.

In summarizing his findings, Gawande argues:

I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories, though as time goes on it is within narrower and narrower confines. A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.

The story gets very personal at times, as Gawande weaves in the details of his own father’s illness and death.  He shares the excruciating choices that his father, his mother, and he had to make in the years following the discovery of his father’s rare spinal cancer; the important conversations they all had while navigating the nearly impossible decisions of whether and when to operate, and what sort of care to get in service of his fathers’ well-being and his father’s health in the years leading up to his death.

The book is both moving and overwhelmingly practical. It presents stories and facts and analysis and also gives us the tools to manage our own confrontation with serious illness and death. Most powerful, to me, are Gawande’s guidelines for the conversations we need to have when someone is very sick and near death. They must follow, in Gawande’s estimation, a clear path:

Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

These questions are powerful because they put the sick and dying person back in the driver’s seat, not just as someone making choices from an array of medical interventions – interventions that are, customarily, described incorrectly (doctors consistently overestimate the likelihood of success and consistently underplay risks to patients) – but as someone who knows best what they value in their own lives. It is these conversations that empower real choices and ensure self-determination even in the midst of declining physical and mental well-being.

The book is both sobering and empowering, giving us the tools to confront some of our most challenging moments with dignity. Gawande concludes with a simple reframing: “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.”

I’ll be evangelizing this book for a while, to anyone who will listen – not because it’s a fun read or a good one, but because it’s real and because we are failing ourselves and our loved ones by handing over some of the most important decisions in our lives to professionals who are neither trained nor equipped to answer them without us.

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There really is green grass under the snow

No matter how many feet deep you have to dig to find it.

Not just metaphorically. Actual green grass, just waiting there for the spring.

Helps to remember that every now and again.

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People like us

A few years into my job as a fundraiser, one of the things I grew to hate was being sent lists of rich people. What, exactly, was I supposed to do with them? Of course, by definition the people who can give a lot of money are the people who have a lot of money, but that qualifier alone means next to nothing.

As Seth keeps reminding us, our work is to find our tribe, people who share a worldview, and to communicate to them that “people like us do things like this.”

WSJ_people like us

This Wall Street Journal ad nails it for me. While the WSJ no doubt has all the obvious data you’d hope they have – about income levels and geography and demographics and and and – about their readers, the ad boils everything down to:

People who don’t have time to read the Wall Street Journal make time to read the Wall Street Journal.

(will.i.am – producer, entrepreneur, philanthropist)

People like us – busy, successful, top of the heap enough that we now wear multiple hats – believe that the WSJ helps keep us where we are, believe that it is our access to this kind of content allows us to continue to be the thing we are so proud to be.

It’s specific and aspirational for the group that people who identify with that worldview, people for whom that story resonates.

What is your group? What is their worldview? What story do they want to be a part of?

(Want to learn more?  Sign up here.)

Posted in Acumen | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments