Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category
A word is a fuse. Light the fuse.
I’m teaching a freelance copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. Yesterday was our first day and I wanted the students to begin the shift from writing papers for professors to writing words to make a difference. I maintain that excellent copywriting is the very opposite of spewing malarkey and hype. Especially today, when anybody who can read and/or listen and absorb marketing messages has their BS meter set on high all day long.
The best copy doesn’t call attention to itself. The best copy is nearly invisible and absorbed without realizing it. The best copy latches on to or illustrates a larger idea and leads the reader to the idea threshold. The best copy is emotive and rational. If it can be silly too—all the better.
We talked about the differences we perceive in writing for non-profit, mission-driven organizations and for-profit organizations. At first glance we might think one organization is all about mission and the other is all about money. But that is a mistaken notion: for-profit organizations can be all about mission and non-profits can be all about fundraising. Examples abound in each category.
One of the things I love most about teaching these particular students is the sensitivity to mission. They are cool with the notion of using your writing skills to help others. Many are considering starting work with non-profits, but that is not unusual for many studying the liberal arts. These particular students are often eager to trace their motivations for helping others back to some of the ancient texts that drive much of this school’s mission.
But one thing that is not so clear is that mission-driven work exists in both non-profits and for-profits. One’s mission comes largely from within. Our job—that thing we get paid for—is an outward-focus of the mission we bring with us. A copywriter with a sense of wanting to help others can find a home in any number of organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. And using that copywriting skill to bring a reader to a life-changing realization can be a primary motivation for the whole task of writing.
I would like to see more copywriters with that motivation.
My go-to example is the quiet laugh from the writer in this four-minute film. Listen for the laugh. Think about what that laugh says about delivering the right words at the right time:
This Permission Tool Will Calm and Kick You
Look—I know you get all fidgety about the stuff you’ve got to do: the papers to write, the group projects to complete, the hours at work and the woman you’re trying to work up the nerve to ask out. Finals coming—have you even read the chapters? Plus all the pressure to assemble a plan for the rest of your life. Get on that! (Ha! Here’s a hint: your plans will scatter like water on a hot skillet. Again and again. But you still have to plan.)
That’s why I’m writing, lo from across these many decades.
Behold: the timer.
Like an egg timer only with more time and without the eggs.
The timer is a permission tool you can employ today. The timer will grant you focus and peace of mind. The timer will calm your fidgety, anxious self. The timer puts an end to the ridiculous argument that you can do several things at once. You may find this hard to believe, but in the decades to come people routinely kill others while driving and opt out of deep life-changing conversations because they “multitask” (big word in twenty years). Wacky, right?
Here’s how the timer works:
- Look at the big pile of stuff you’ve got to do.
- Pick the most important thing. Just one thing.
- Set the timer for 60 minutes.
- Start the timer.
- Do that one thing.
- Do that thing for 60 minutes. Don’t get coffee. Don’t talk to your roommates. Don’t daydream about that beautiful woman. Don’t stare out the window. Do the one thing.
- When the timer rings, get up and do all that other stuff.
- In fifteen minutes, pick the next thing, set the timer and repeat the process.
Sound simple? It is!
Listen, Mr. 19-year-old Kirkistan: this is how you are going to get stuff done for the rest of your life. Even enormous projects tremble when the timer shows up. Almost everything in life can be broken into manageable segments.
And this: You emerge a happier person when the timer goes off. Because you actually did something.
I think you have a timer on that big plastic watch of yours.
Look Boss: It is Written
One of my favorite bosses, when privately presented with a wallet-sized card imprinted with the corporate mission and asked what he thought of it, pretended to use it to wipe his derriere.
Was my boss in open rebellion?
Not in the least.
My boss was responding to a ridiculous communication tool. At that point in the history of that particular medical device company, it was all mission and everyone knew it. Patients and physicians were front and center and no one needed reminding. We were all directly involved in the mission and to think otherwise was to dismiss the conscious and vocal choices people made to work there.
Then again, perhaps the communication tool was a bit prophetic. It wouldn’t be long before many in the firm started taking their eyes off the mission to focus instead on quarterly profit goals to the exclusion of patients, physicians and common sense. These things happen when big bonuses are at stake.
But it need not be that way and you may well be the one to say so.
Unless you simply wanted a job and any job would do, you likely joined your firm because of mission. You found yourself in some level of agreement with the firm’s vision and wanted to help move this thing forward. For many of us, the mission is a motivating and ennobling force, even if we may not think of it constantly.
We know that even the best-intentioned organizations stray from their intended goals and go rogue with evil intent. This happens at high and public levels. It also happens at day-to-day levels, in quick decisions and in small furtive meetings among colleagues. For-profit companies do it. Non-profits do it. Churches do it. Hobby clubs are also capable of it.
That’s when any of us needs to come back to the mission and openly ask whether this quick decision or that furtive meeting is accomplishing our shared mission. Sometimes our best and smartest move is to reprise the mission openly, verbally and with gusto. We all need reminding of our purpose and mission from time to time.
If you care about your organization’s mission, you may need to lead a mutiny today. You’ll want to count the cost, of course, because mutiny can be very expensive.
Catch me if you can
One must slow down to understand.
Way back: I’m thinking back to a statistics class in college. The theater-seating room in the Psychology building at UW-Madison was packed with well over 200 people. And at the last possible minute the professor would make a grand entrance, rushing down the side of the room with flowing scarf, his cologne preceeding him and wafting across the room. Then he talked nonstop for the next 50 or 75 or 100 minutes. In my mind a bell rang at the end, but I may have imagined that. He took no questions. His purposes were served to assume everyone was with him.
Few were, naturally.
Teaching assistants did the actual work of slowly going through the ideas and problems sets. They were the ones taking the time to tee up concept after concept and watch as some statistics-averse philosophy student slowly worked it out. That’s how a multi-layered idea passes between people: slowly.
Today: Sometimes Mrs. Kirkistan will ask how teaching went today. I consider teaching a success when we have had a robust discussion about the central concept for the day. When people bring in stories and draw connections—usually there is laughter—that is what engagement looks like. It is satisfying. Once upon a time I thought if I got through my slides in time that was success. Today I believe slides are the least important thing—because delivering slides to an audience largely absent is one of the more vacuous activities on the planet.
Tomorrow: My smelly, scarf-toting statistics professor from way back didn’t care about engagement. But that attitude won’t get anyone very far in a culture pivoting toward collaboration. Broadcasting an aroma and putting on a costume scarf doesn’t actually carry all that much weight for those interested in slicing and dicing a subject. What does carry weight is passion for a topic that slows and shares enough to bring others up to speed. Collaboration takes time while we each catch up and synchronize our language. But slowing to a human scale of understanding is worth the effort.
Make Talk Work at Work
If it’s been a while since you’ve had a truly collaborative conversation at work, take some steps toward that today. Collaboration is starting to register on the radar of many leaders in organizations. Collaboration is the love-child of the free speech we tout in social media and the world of work. Collaboration is freed speech working its way backwards through organizations.
Create a conversation zone in 3 easy steps:
- Acknowledge the human in front of you. “What?” you may say. “That’s pretty obvious stuff.” Not so fast: how many times a day does your mind go dark when the janitor says something, or the clerk—or the boss? It’s the automatic assumptions that run ahead of those conversations that poison the water. Start with this basic thought and you may be able to strip away some of the power distance that ruins conversations before they even begin
- Listen with your eyes. Eyeball to eyeball. No listening happens when my eyes are focused on my Samsung Note II. Don’t fool yourself that you are listening—you aren’t. Not really. Multitasking does not count when it comes to human relationships. I’ve taught enough college students to know instantly who is paying attention, and 93.2% of that is eye contact (6.8% of students have mastered the art of eye contact while entirely absent).
- Expose yourself. Really: tell what you honestly don’t know and what you wonder. Stupidity is endearing when offered without guile. Be the stupid guy. Ask the dumb question. Let it be known that you don’t know.
Good things will happen if you take these three steps today.
Oh, and report back, will you? What happened in your conversation today?
Collaboration is hard for a lot of reasons. One reason is the power distance between people in a company. How can I say what I really think when I know my boss disagrees? Can I have a real conversation with an automaton who spouts corporate messaging and controls my salary?
Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power their Organizations by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind starts with good intentions: to lay out this new challenge of interacting with employees as if they had something worthwhile to say.
But I should back up: old styles of management were about command and control: I’m boss so I’ll tell you what to do. And you’ll do it. New ways of thinking about the work of leadership and managing tout a more generous and collaborative approach to personal relationships. But these collaborative ways still have a hard time sifting down through the ranks of gatekeeping managers who intuitively see their mission as that of controlling others.
Talk, Inc. has a terrific vision, but the first section (three chapters on intimacy) is off-putting in that it quotes CEOs and VPs and various bosses at length, each talking about all they are doing to encourage collaboration. But Groysberg and Slind may have done better to start at the other end: giving voice to employees who have been given a voice. As it stands, the first three chapters are a difficult slog because anyone who has spent time in a corporation will recognize the smarmy PR tone of the program-of-the-quarter. My corporate BS meter kept pinging into the red.
The book gets better, but all the way through I struggled with the “trusted leaders” part of the subtitle. For a book that intends to talk about the power of conversation, there is still an awful lot of command and control monologue. Whether it was the suits from Cisco or Hindustan Oil talking, it was hard to take their comments seriously.
Talk, Inc. is, however, smartly organized into four sections (Intimacy, Interactivity, Inclusion and Intentionality). Each section has a chapter that plays out the vision, followed by a chapter that shows a company trying to carry out that particular part of the vision, followed by a “Talking Points” summary that helps the reader play it forward. The Inclusion and Intentionality sections offer more thoughtful reasoning and vision-casting for changing corporate culture so real conversation can happen. Groysberg and Slind offer solid examples of organizations that work hard at listening. But this is a story that really needs to be told from the “newly-voiced” perspective.