The Beauty of Being a Hack

Pinning

(Working Title: Fake it until you make it… and beyond)

Let’s assume that change is good. We’ll call it positive change. Change typically means being placed in situations that are unfamiliar. The unfamiliar has the ability to produce discomfort. Let’s introduce the concept of positive discomfort.

In order to grow, discomfort needs to be recognized as a good thing.

In conversation #8 of 100 Conversations, a goal was phrased as wanting to speak with authority about a subject. It was also phrased in wanting to get to the point of not feeling like a hack. The phrase “fake it until you make it” came to mind. I think that we have all been there, or are still there. It can take a long time until we achieve expertise (or close to it), and it sometimes takes even longer to actually realize that we’ve made it there. The trip to expertise is long and gradual, so we probably carry the feeling of being a hack with us beyond when we could have left it behind.

So, we get to a point where we have the tools and skills to deal with the majority of what we encounter. Things become more static, and there is a resultant decrease in discomfort. Well… in theory. The truth is that we find ourselves opening doors to new opportunity for new experiences, and the accompanying ability to be a hack again. This time you get to be an experienced hack rather than a freshman hack. Reassuring, right?

[I’m going to try a new thing in my blog posts. You’ve just reached the first point that I’d like to make: we do fake it until we make it, and then keep on faking it BUT in a more controlled/experienced manner. It’s normal. You can head on over to People magazine now, or continue on for an expansion of this reassurance.]

There is truth in this ever renewed hackdom. Most of us seek to develop a core expertise, and then we build upon it or expand it in new ways. When my work is directly related to my company’s mission statement, I am a landscape architect and apply that skillset for our clients. The episodes of truly being a hack relate to major chapters in our lives. I can be a landscape architect with my eyes closed, but when it comes to the current chapter where I’m the guy running the company? That’s where my discomfort lies. That’s my current chapter. These chapters take the form of receiving a big promotion, moving to a new company, changing careers, having a kid, etc…

The conversation that spurred this blog post was with an artist. And, my brain is finding some challenge with processing where it wants to go within this discussion. Let’s assume that success is predicated on having a specific set of skills to apply to a specific set of problems. Most careers are based on someone approaching us for a specific expected outcome. What happens when the specific expected outcome IS being new and different?

We look to artists to provide us with things of aesthetic beauty (which is in the eye of the beholder), but we also sometimes seek a deeper need to have them connect us to new ways of looking at our world. The easiest “specific expected outcome” for an artist is to provide us with something of beauty. An artist can achieve an expertise and spend their life creating the things of beauty that we surround ourselves with. This can be their career.

If their artistic identity is grounded within a higher level of engaging an audience with ways of looking at the world, then comfort is a stale sign. Positive discomfort is the indicator that they are in the place that they should be. The level of discomfort probably being directly proportional to whether growth is incremental, or a massive shift. My empathy for artists is huge. “Success” is grounded within finding popularity. The majority of people like the familiar. How many times does our culture reject the “new” that our artists create? At a concert do you shout loudest for the new songs, or the old one that you know by heart? How did you feel when Picasso entered his blue period? [you probably don’t have first-hand experience unless you’re immortal]. So not only does discomfort arise from the challenge of investigating a new approach to your art, it comes from how people will react when you change how pleasing you are to them.

As a landscape architect, I am in a design profession. We exist within a spectrum between the functional and the artistic. Technical expertise. Craft. Art. The discomfort that I experience relates to the vagaries of running a business, and trying to do new things.  We do artistic things, but are we artists? At least in my world, I don’t think we have enough discomfort to be artists. Our artistic efforts are grounded in function.

The tangent I find myself considering now in this post is how much discomfort can we accommodate? At the moment, I spend much energy on the discomfort that arises from running a business, managing clients and the challenges of communicating with all involved. I think my discomfort quota is mostly full. That (unfortunately) leaves less room to seek the discomfort of the artistic side of what we do. I think that’s typical to our world and what happens as we age and gain expertise.

This leads to the beauty of patrons. Perhaps the most important role of a patron is that they free artists from the discomfort and constraints of ‘fitting into’ society and ‘making a living’. They can focus their discomfort quota toward pursuing the change and vitality of examining (and shifting) views of the world within and around us. They gain the freedom to seek discomfort.

So, back to the concept of being a hack. Over time most of us pursue vocations or careers where we incrementally develop our knowns and the certainty that tomorrow will look mostly like today. We get better at being a hack, as the hack we were yesterday looks like the hack we’ll be tomorrow. For artists (or creatives in general), the beauty and pain of it is that they might wake up as a completely new and different hack. Perhaps yesterday provides some tools for them, but maybe not. What they carry with them as their core certainty is a desire to look at the world and show others what they see. Comfortable or not.

Well, I find myself at the concluding paragraph (and once again, it just feels like I spent hours contemplating something that is just obvious once I get to it). Most of us are like kids in a scouting program. We work within a system where each badge you get prepares you a bit more for the next one, and the sash that you wear them on illustrates your incremental momentum toward being less and less of a hack. There are those around us who just wander off into the woods alone to create their own badges. The freedom of discomfort. The perpetual hack.

State Your Assumptions

Feynman

Positive change. How do organizations achieve it?

Part 1 – A mechanism for coordination

“Top-down” and “bottom-up” are familiar concepts for discussing where change originates within an organization. They’re based within some level of organizational hierarchy, with a simplified view being that there are two levels of power: workers and managers. The power they each possess stems from the fact that they need each other.

As an aside, this has been a very hard post to write and edit. It’s been difficult to distill into not only something of interest, but hopefully something useful. The underlying assumption I’d like you to embrace is that our goal is positive change. Let’s take this apart and agree that change is a fact of life, and that there is always room for improvement. Hence: positive change.

With the goal of positive change, success is found when both entities find agreement and are aligned in a common direction. Without alignment, change is difficult. The sheer potential for change is stymied when the groups don’t even have a mechanism in place to listen… let alone an ability to work to agreement.

Another main point I’d like to introduce is that your organization needs to be intentional with how it approaches change, and have processes in place to evaluate whether change is positive or negative. If you wish to be an advocate of positive change, you need to understand how your organization handles change.

Part 2 – Institutional limits on innovation

A concept of which I was recently made aware is that of a conversational ‘anchor’. These anchors are the biases or preconceived views that we bring with us. They anchor us to one way of thinking and as a result shape how others interact with us.

If organizationally rooted, these anchors define the ideology of an organization. If they are leadership rooted, they will have the same general effect. It’s simplistic, and it is a spectrum, but I’d like to introduce the idea that organizations are either solution-focused or ideology-focused. Either entity may have an inspirational vision of the future, an action-oriented mission to support their vision, the goals to support their mission, and the strategies to achieve their goals. But, I suggest that they differ greatly in the anchors that they carry and how they carry them. How do anchors limit positive change? I would hypothesize that the more anchors there are, the more limited an organization is in finding and implementing positive change. At its most open, an organization engages with its staff to tackle issues and develop solutions. This becomes less and less effective the more anchors that there are.

Part 3 – Assumptions vs. Premises

I don’t think there is any judgment of either organization type. Another way to view anchors is to call them assumptions. In our everyday lives (and episodes of Three’s Company), assumptions can be quite damaging because we’re not operating with all of the information. The scientific/logical approach to assumptions can be very powerful (and necessary), when we state them, recognize them and ideally confirm them. They serve the purpose of narrowing down the scope of a discussion, ideally beginning with people having agreement on the assumptions that will be made.

So… for the sake of this post, let’s say that an anchor is something subconscious (or undeclared) that we bring with us… whereas a premise is a declared assumption. A solution-focused organization is likely to be built on declared and agreed upon premises that are open to change. In other words, the organizational type predisposes itself to always questioning. Whereas, an ideology-focused organization will need to protect itself from the potential negative impacts of anchors. It is an organization that is already predisposed to a particular way of thinking. Extra effort will be required to ensure that any ideology has a solid premise, and is only applied the way that is intended to be applied.

Part 4 – Engaging the Highest Level of Expertise

Back to positive change. Each of us has our highest level of expertise. We are at our best when we focus on that, and others consult with us for our abilities. That’s where we provide our highest value, and often it provides us with happiness when we are engaged at that level. In a perfect world, that means that everyone is vested with vision and mission where they understand and support the goals and strategies. When this is the case, challenges are approached with a more comprehensive understanding… and we open an organization to an opportunity: people will offer solutions that may solve multiple problems… or… they might stop and challenge the question, helping the right question be asked.

This requires an organizational approach that is open to critical thought. This is a very simplistic discussion as it’s not as easy as saying, “you need to be solutions-based”. That could lead to amazing chaos with everyone being enabled to suddenly be philosophical. There is a hierarchical overlay of a number of levels of leadership, but the idea is to enable people to grow and initiate growth.

[As an aside, are you familiar with kaizen? A system of continuous improvement. If you’re not familiar with it, take a moment to check it out on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen). The foundation of this system is a solutions-based system where everyone is integrated meaningfully within every corner of the organization. If someone sees an opportunity to improve the organization, the systems are in place to hear them, evaluate ideas, and implement positive change.]

Part 5 – Right Person, Right Place, Right Time

Let’s also realize that an organizational challenge is to find the right place for the right employee at the right time of their career. The Peter Principle (not named after me) is summarized as being people rise to the level of their incompetence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle.  People usually receive promotions based on how well they do their current role, rather than assessing their effectiveness and skills as suited for the role they will rise into. So, you are amazing at your job and you get promotions… until you are in a role that you aren’t as good at. Then you stay there. Ideally, everyone would be at the level just below their incompetence. Easy to say. Our culture is grounded in the idea of upward mobility, and organizations and individuals aren’t good at saying when they’re in the right place.

So, a solutions-based system needs to enable all employees and ensure that the right person is in the right role at the right time in their career.

Part 6 – Bringing it home

So… I’ll pick on ideology-based systems. I’m maybe really getting into the realm of opinion and bias here, but the reason for this is to address a system that has preconceived notions. An example of this is polarized government. Investing any organization with vision and mission is a challenge, and has an inherent weakness in the face of people who aren’t integrated. If they are just ambivalent, the system rolls on with them in it (but not the better for it). If they work counter to the system, a few can severely damage the whole. Unfortunately, being an elected system, government doesn’t typically reflect an integrated system of vision, mission, goals and strategies (sadly)… people are often elected based on specific strategies or goals (election friendly soundbites). Organizational effectiveness requires a continuum, so in a system where vision/mission/goals/strategies can change drastically… long-term benefit can be crippled.

What I’m getting at in this is that a solutions-based system maintains a high level of flexibility in how to achieve a vision. An ideological based system has more constraints on how to get there. It’s the difference between trying to solve a problem with a single tool versus having a tool box. “Our mission statement guides us to use a pipe wrench,” versus “Let’s assess the problem and figure out the ideal way to solve it.”

Part 7 – Epilogue

Phew. The above was hard to write, and I’m uncertain I did a great job of leading you with where my brain was going. At the end of it, I likely just restated the obvious. I think the most important part of this is to state that to work toward positive change, we need to understand the system within which we are working. Each system can offer advantages, and it likely depends on how much of a paradigm shift is needed for the positive change that is initiated.

The point is that we recognize that we are surrounded by systems that are grounded with assumptions/premises of which we may or may not be aware. Many entities predispose themselves toward certain solutions for one reason or another. This could be politics, religion or just doing it the same way it’s always been done. My worry is that these organizations are complacent to existing within these anchors, and they become an accepted organizational mentality with unintentional (?) limitations. If an organization has been taught that direction comes from the top, it doesn’t encourage personal engagement. People begin to show up, do their job like they’ve been told, and go home.

So. Does your organization clearly state its assumptions/premises? Do they recognize that these do frame how they operate? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises are used correctly and don’t influence other areas? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises encourage and spur positive change around them? Can these premises be changed? And to take it back to something I asked at the beginning of this post, does your organization have a mechanism in place to genuinely listen, assess and implement?

Benevolent Manipulation (aka Helping Someone Out)

Helping Hand

Our work lives require us to be professional. Being professional requires that we train ourselves with a filter that kicks in instantly to cancel out our base instincts. There may be times where that filter malfunctions. If the relationship is good, we can recognize what needs to happen. We can apply that filter for that person. And, it’s reassuring to sometimes hear that something sucks and someone understands. Then we can talk about how we’ll try to respond better next time.

In firms, bad things rise to the top. That’s a fact, and that’s actually the way it needs to be. Leaders are responsible for cleaning up messes and trying to keep everything neat and orderly. The tasks that arise that no one else can do, those are their tasks.

It’s a fact that in addition to the strengths they have, they also have weaknesses. Beyond what work throws at us, life adds another layer of surprises. As a leader, you are required to strive to be the best person you can be all of the time, and to certainly always be professional. If you show weakness, it will have impacts on those around you. If you are grumpy or if you snap… the ramifications go much beyond what you would experience at home where forgiveness is more often applied (hopefully). A work relationship can be seriously damaged by misplaced actions and words. There is such a thing as opening Pandora’s box. You are expected to be the solid and fearless leader… and you need to strive to achieve that.

Being a leader means that your brain churns with one non-optimal situation or another, trying to find the appropriate resolution. I know that I firmly believe that every situation does have a win-win option. It’s hard to constantly juggle all of the variables and organize them into something good.

That’s what it is. The higher you are in an organization, the more variables you are likely to be juggling. Just like algebra, an equation with one variable is pretty easy to solve. Two variables is a bit more tricky. Get to three and more, the complexity sky rockets. Not only do firm leaders work with multi-variable problems… they have multiple problems happening at the same time.

So, I titled this post benevolent manipulation… or, helping someone. Empathy and sympathy can be hard when we can’t identify with the experiences of someone else. We can’t be expected to know what it’s like to be responsible for the success of multiple people in a firm, until that’s what we do. Maybe the first step is to understand that the leaders of your firm firm are probably actively thinking about the best ways to activate you and enable you to be the best person you can be. They are trying to adapt themselves to maximize the benefits of your relationship. They have been where you are now, so they have access to direct sympathy  and empathy. One challenge is that their efforts to assist you will likely be invisible. They are trying to match your world-view, so it might just seem normal to you (and thus invisible).

Then, your boss has a bad day. Or a number of them. Where they might have addressed something perfectly constructively before, they now are short and perhaps negative. Empathy goes a fair ways… but, your duty is actually to try to adapt to those around you. If you notice that a certain action on your part resulted in a sub-optimal reaction… the first thing you need to do is to assess it. Can you separate the intent from the delivery? Can you empathize with their reaction? Is there anything you can do to manipulate future situations to ensure that reaction doesn’t happen again?

You are responsible to adapt to those around you and make their lives smoother (just as they owe the same to you). We don’t want to lose ourselves in the mix, but we can make choices that benefit those around us. Control the situation to help the other person be the person they want to be. We all want to be good… and it’s easier with help.

If you want another post with a more applied discussion of ‘benevolent manipulation’, see Benevolent Manipulation. [Am I already running short of titles?]