Writing

Embrace The Need For Difference

Our media environment creates a relentless pressure to be the same. Embrace the need for difference.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Same Same

In my neighbourhood, the four major banks have now all moved their branches together. While geographic distribution to meet different customer traffic and communities might seem attractive. They have settled in four shops in a row, with a few regional banks nearby. Harold Hotelling, a statistician and economist, was one of the first to explain this clustering behaviour as a response to risk. By choosing the same location and using the competitors proof of demand they split the market. Further away there is a risk of a geographic preference favouring one or another. Businesses give up strategic differences for safety given uncertainty.

Hotelling’s logic on clustering of location has also been extended to product similarities. We see a profusion of near identical products differentiated by price and often an invisible quality difference. So many organisations benchmark their product strategy by what others or the market are doing. Industry conferences are full of the same advice, the same consultants and the same case studies just with different brands attached. There is safety in the herd.

Spend a day in social media and you will see the same advice on business, strategy, careers and life recycled again and again. Much of what is called thought leadership is repeating well-worn platitudes. There is safety in this advice. It will not offend. Others have proved the market. You don’t take a risk and can capture your share of a proven demand for ‘5 no-fail tips on something.”

Don’t get me started on the universal sameness of ‘good’ images on social media and their implications for mental health, body image and more. We are surrounded by a sameness so extreme that I recently saw a post putting together halves of faces of different Hollywood actors. The mega hits are remakes and known franchises. Not surprisingly when the risk of a film is measured in tens of millions, there is safety in similarity.

But Different

All this sameness can be alienating and depressing for those who might not fit the perfect stereotype. At times the lack of context on all this success advice reminds me of an old joke about asking directions where the punchline is “If you want to go there, you’d be best not to start from here”. We are telling people to go the same place and some don’t feel like they are ever going to make it. In all our focus on proven safety we forget that we crave difference and that difference is what makes true success.

For all the people writing case studies of Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook now, we need to recognise when they started they were different, deliberately so. Many of them were so different as to be unsafe, predicted to fail or doomed to a minor market share. Each has changed its category and then changed category so much that the initial risks and departures are lost in time.

As uncomfortable as it may be and as hard and long as the path may be, difference is what wins out. The point of segmentation is not to divide the market the way your competitors do so as to better deliver your competitors strategy. The point of segmentation is to find your own group of customers and to do something different valued only by them. Kevin Kelly talks about the power of winning the support of a thousand fans. It’s more than enough support for most businesses and people and the path to greater things. Do something different and valued by your chosen group.

In my strategy work, I use Lafley and Martin’s Playing to Win regularly as a simple and effective guide to the questions that should be addressed in market positioning. One reason is that it is explicitly focused on the choices and dynamics of differentiation. Most importantly it explicitly asks “How will we win?”. That is a question that is oddly left unaddressed in many strategies that just point out that what is to be done is already being done by others.

Choosing to stand alone feels scary. People will point out that the herd is safer and that others are doing better in the pack. Choose to stand different and go looking for the community that will support you to succeed as you choose to succeed. As they come over time, your own community will be the safety net for your difference.

Choose to be different. Embrace your own way to win. Find your own community to support that journey. Over time your difference will be the foundation of your position and success.

The Work Effectiveness Conversation

Recently I joined a conversation about the role of cameras in our work meetings with Rebecca Jackson, Benjamin Elias and Kerrie Hawkins for Regarding 365. This is a short conversation with some great insights on why cameras are not necessarily an ‘always on’ proposition in our work meetings.

A key theme of this conversation is make meeting effectiveness a discussion for each meeting and work ongoing. For those who have followed this blog for a while, this is a major theme of my work. How people work effectively varies for a variety of reasons from the people, to the work, and to the circumstances.

The temptation to require particular patterns of work comes from our history of manufacturing as a model of work. Many organisations have not moved far from procedures and process dictating how everything should be done, even if the work of these organisations are increasingly knowledge work.. You can’t mandate people must use internal social media. It needs to be a decision of employees to choose how they connect, share, solve and innovate. You can’t mandate the best way for people to work. People need to make choices that work best for each team and each circumstance.

The cost of mandating ‘best practices’ is that you lose engagement of those for whom the mandated approach doesn’t work well, whether that is cameras on, meetings all day, agile practices, social tools or other processes. The mandate also reduces the opportunity for employees to make their work more productive for them and their colleagues. Arguing with a mandate is not worth the effort for many and you will lose their views and input.

The most effective workplaces are ones where employees are engaged. That also means they are the work places where employees are engaged in a continuous discussion about the better ways to deliver their work. Whether it is the use of cameras or another work practice you can start these discussions in your workplace by asking employees to share their views, experiment with different approaches and debate the best ways to manage work.

We have much more change and disruption to come in our work. We should look forward to the conversations about work that will help us all manage that change and improve effectiveness as we do so.

Jumping OVER

Jumping the fence out into something new. Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels.com

We are enthusiastic about the potential to jump boundaries. The process of crossing boundaries is a difficult one. It can be hard to know if we are jumping in or out.

I want to go to the other bank

In the trees on the other bank
a solitary startled wood pigeon
flies towards me

Bei Dao, The Boundary tr. Bonnie S MacDougall

New Boundaries

Before the pandemic arrived in 2020, I had started working on better understanding and shaping some boundaries around my work and life. The last 18 months have reshaped that quest radically.

The boundaries have never been narrower. We have adapted to working remotely, but I think we are only just starting to proactively manage the implications for our organisations ongoing. These changes to work have social implications that are yet to play our. I wonder if the “Great Resignation” themes we are seeing promoted in the business media are not the outcome of constraining people and making them focus on the narrowness of their work undistracted by travel, busyness and other social distractions.

Near And Far

Effective individuals and organisations will not be constrained by the boundaries set by spaces. They will shape the boundaries of the networks that are necessary to succeed in their work. Focusing on network, rather than physical space, changes our view of near and far. A surprising percentage of our work interactions in a typical office and even common electronic communications are shaped by the ’50 meter’ rule. Such an arbitrary measure can’t be an outcome of effectiveness.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

ee cummings, somewhere i have never travelled

We need to teach our employees to navigate new networks and to cross boundaries, near and far. This process is not always an easy one. We need different skills to navigate networks. We will discover terrritories marked only on the map as ‘Here be Monsters’. Much of what we will encounter will be diverse, strange and uncomfortable. Success in these new environments will take different skills and learning.

Boundaries work in two ways. As much as they define ‘out’, they also define a new ‘in’. It is worthwhile for us to remember this. For every thing we grieve as we cross a boundary, we discover new and often more productive outcomes. Jumping out can be just jumping into a new context. The challenge is to ensure that the new context is better, more rewarding and more productive. Jumping boundaries to find a new hamster wheel is for hamsters.

As our physical interactions are constrained, we need to learn to jump new boundaries into better more productive ways of work. That process won’t always be comfortable at first. However, it may be the case that without leaving your space, you are jumping out into something new and better.

Allow me to stay in my room
and weave my rainbows.

Chungmi Kim, Allow Me

Rope-a-dope

Sometimes you need to hang on long enough for things to turn in your favour. Wait until you can play to your strengths.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Rope-a-dope

The phrase Rope-a-dope comes from the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974, known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle‘. A 32 year-old Muhammed Ali was the underdog against the young and powerful title holder George Foreman. While Ali was know for his speed and reflexes, but after the first round rather than engage the fearsome Foreman, Ali set to wear him down. Ali ducked and weaved but mostly just covered up on the ropes allowing Foreman to hit him repeatedly but also to tire himself out. As Foreman tired, Ali was able to regain the offensive and the fight was stopped in the 8th round with Ali the surprise winner.

If a boxing analogy is not to your taste, recognise that the same strategy has been applied in many other contexts. Sailors sheet their sails or even take shelter in port during a fierce storm to preserve their vessels. Animals hibernate to escape the harshest of the winter. Surviving is a strategy because those who are destroyed by a fierce foe don’t win.

Some times success demands that we change our tactics. More importantly, success can depend on our ability to wait for the timing to swing to our advantage. We may even have to take a lot of punishment while we wait for the right time.

The Right Time

Our always-on fast charging world has led us to believe that the right time is always now. That we must relentless seek to chase success and lead from the front. First-mover advantages are constantly touted, even if they are rarely real. Many people become dejected when success takes time, feeling that it has taken too long or they have missed their chance.

It is a common experience that most ‘overnight successes’ have taken seven to ten years of waiting for the capabilities, the opportunity and timing to be in place. Much luck is carefully constructed and more about time than anything else. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book, Outliers, on the importance of timing in success.

Overlay the frustrations of a global pandemic and all its public safety measures and many people are dejected that ‘their time’ is being lost. If you can succeed in this environment, then congratulations and no doubt it is because of the work and capability you have put together to meet the needs of this time.

It is important to note though that faced with as virulent and strong a foe as a global pandemic, a rope-a-dope strategy is perfectly viable. Hunker down. Sheet the sails. Adapt. Stay present. Go step-by-step. Plan to come back stronger at a better time.

Recognise that this is a perfectly valid plan. Forgive yourself the feeling that you should be doing more. Plan to support yourself as you get buffeted on the rope. If you choose to wait out the storm of blows, you need to be able to survive to the end. Focus on that survival and you will be ready for the opportunities that come to win later. Remember that a time that you can show your strengths is the right time to succeed. If the timing is wrong, that’s not about you or your strengths.

Rope-a-dope is OK. It might even be the perfect strategy for now.

Nostalgia

The 1980s never looked this good – Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Nostalgia sells. We are therefore caught in its grip. What we don’t always perceive is how it is holding us back.

Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of less happiness are passing by.

Elizabeth Bishop

Nostalgia is a ‘sentimental longing or wistful affection for a time in the past’. It is a yearning for things and times lost to the ages. Nostalgia provokes us to remember the great experiences of our past and to see them as long gone and distant. Nostalgia in this way is a barrier to us seeing that those moments have made us and are still with us. There are no ‘halcyon days’. The past had its awful moments, more than today, but we have edited out the negatives from our memories.

Like any emotional connection, it will be exploited by marketers, trend setters and culture creators. The waves of ’80s themed music, movies and other experiences is just an effort to leverage our nostalgia for commercial success. We can have fun and enjoy nostalgia but there is a real danger if we become stuck there.

In exploring the many arguments of the lockdown vs let it rip debates gripping Australia and other markets through this pandemic, I have been struck how both sides are in the grip of nostalgia. The ‘let it rip’ advocates often explicitly say they want to ‘get back to their lives’. More subtly the strongest advocates of remaining locked down argue that we need to remain so ‘until this passes (& we can get back to our lives).’ We see the same dynamics in many similar debates in this time – working from home vs returning to the office, how schooling should be conducted, what leadership is, how we communicate, and more. Instead of building our future from what was, we need to build a future around what we need and what works.

I love the nostalgia of the typewriter. I own a few. I don’t write on them. Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

Nostalgia is a barrier to constructive change when it provokes the emotions that make us look back to solutions that no longer suit our lives, our times or our place. Our politics is full of people on both sides evoking the past as a productive way forward when our challenges are new and our society has changed. If we make the past, the standard by which all solutions are judged, we will miss the solutions that promise real and effective change.

I love an 1980s dance tune as much as the next person who lived through that era. I don’t for a minute want to go back to my awkward teenage years. I learned what I learned from that time and I have lived a life since. The potential to use those life lessons is much more important to me that any longing for any particular time, place or era.

When things are gone, we can’t bring them back with wishing. We need to grieve and move on in the here and now. Nostalgia can be an enjoyable escape. It is a major barrier to the effective change we need in our lives, work and society.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.

Billy Collins, Nostalgia

PS For the ultimate nostalgia blast, Abba have a new song, ‘I still have faith in you’

Relationships

The moment has been coming for some time. Transactions are great. We long for relationships.

Relationships are two-way. Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Digital transformation atomised much of our economic exchange. With global markets on global platforms, it became easy to ignore relationships and focus on the transaction. Outsourcing, fragile transactional supply chains, gig economy exploitation, and more atomisation of our work and markets followed.

As we start to consider the impact of the last two years of major global shocks, its not so clear that the low cost transaction route is always the best outcome. Transactions are fine if you are trading commodities of know quantity at a moment and are done. Despite our best efforts we can’t reduce every interaction to a point in time transaction. Risks are more flexibly and sustainably managed in relationships.

This transaction feels so much like a relationship. Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

Supply chains are chains. They are formed of relationships in many cases. The value of optimising businesses for real-time just-in-time work means that the transactions flow in chains of relationships need to be finely tuned to perform. Disruption of those relationships because of a pandemic, Brexit or other trade wars, a shortage of drivers, weather or fire emergencies can cause massive business disruption. The global automobile industry is disrupted because we are lacking enough chips and chip manufacturing is not an on and off again supply of a commodity.

If your model is trustless, transactional and about self-interest, you can mimic features of relationship. However, you won’t create the value of enduring relationships. Users will be left to craft their own connections in and around your platform. On reason blockchain won’t ever fully replace the world of contracts is most contracts are relationships and not transactions. The clauses work to shape some but not all of the risk allocation. It is too costly, too time-consuming and usually nearly impossible to specify everything. The parts that aren’t self-executing are managed by trust and relationships.

We are also seeing a great deal of questioning of the transactional approach to these markets. In Melbourne, restaurant entrepreneurs got together to launch Providoor to strike a more equitable relationship with the delivery services that are trying to reshape fine food. Local bookstores, small scale craft providers and other specialist practitioners are pushing hard to build their customer relationships when the big and the bold and the extractive look as bland and as out of touch as ever. Many of the entrepreneurs in healthcare consistently fail because they try to turn specialist relationships of service into transactions that neither side of their platform value.

Relationships take investment, but they also deliver exceptional returns from trust, from alignment and from mutual interest. A win-win repeated over time will always outperform a single moment of extraction. Relationships are two-way experiences where we need to show as much care for the interest of others as we do for our own. No matter how hard transaction platforms work to imitate relationships they won’t deliver that enduring two-way engagement.

If we have learned anything from the last 24 months, it should be that we can’t win alone and that others in our lives and our community matter too.

Seeing Stars

We are all in the gutter, but some us are looking at the stars

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere’s Fan
Photo by Aviv Perets on Pexels.com

We have our present trials. That can’t be changed. What matters is the light of our hope. The stars that guide us inspire the work we do today on change.

We have no shortage of existential dread. We are in Wilde’s gutter together and it is most definitely raining. No amount of hand-wringing, blame-shifting or delusion is going to keep us dry.

The challenge for each of us is to find, to cling to and to fight for our hope, that glimmer of light in the distant stars. We need to ‘live right in it, under its roof’.

The very least you do in your life
is figure out what you hope for.

And the most you can do is live inside that hope.

Not admire it from a distance
but live right in it, under its roof.

Barbara Kingsolver

Living Kingsolver’s admonition involves finding a way each day to work towards that distant star. The progress may be minute but step by step we will get there.

Knowing that hope and navigating by its distant star, there will come progress. That hope will pick you up and carry you through the times when the gutter becomes a drain and the drain feels like a storm water carrying you out to sea. Keep working towards the star. Effort and time accumulate and can shift the centre of your challenges to suit you.

As long as you stay put year after year,
eventually you will find a world
beginning to revolve around you.

Ha Jin, A Center

When it feels darkest and most doubtful, remind yourself of what brings you hope. There is purpose, protection and comfort in working to that distant goal.

Romance

We live in a world that values the transactional. Never forget the romance of the relational.

Photo by Jasmine Carter on Pexels.com

Transactions

We do transactions better than ever. Inputs flow into output. Anywhere on the globe. We dispatch to you at a click of button. Immediate execution. Global marketplaces whizz products to meet needs. Once and done. Efficient, seamless, smooth and ultimately forgettable.

Our homes are full of the products. Our fridges are full of the food. Our phones are full of the opinions. Our feeds are full of the acquaintances. Yet our hearts are a little empty. What we gain too easily we can lose just as easily.

In our focus on transactional efficiency, our embrace of the market and our love of the machine metaphor, we might just have forgotten that there’s magic in inefficiency.

Relationships

Relationships deliver more than transactions. The barriers are lower. The trust is higher. The value is far greater. More importantly the experience is underpinned by the faintly frustrating ever-inefficient frisson of romance.

Romance is inherently inefficient to our transactional world. If you fit, be together, says the transactional view of the market. If not, don’t. Except that’s not how we see relationships, relationships are seen through the hope, the meet, the exploration, the struggle and all the work to sustain a relationship through the ups and downs of life. Much of this work is uncertain, costly and ongoing. The work of relationships isn’t over until you stop working to make them work.

Love at first sight is extraordinary but the romance comes from the difficulty of bringing together the star struck lovers. The meet-cute might appeal but the romance arrives after a lot more work and a lot more investment by all concerned. Relationships take work and that work is where the romance lies.

Most importantly, our transactional world makes things more efficient by fitting everything into standards, categories and averages. Nobody has a satisfying relationship with an Everyman. We want to be seen and loved for who we are, even with our own peculiar bundle of challenges, difficulties and outright flaws. The first romance of a relationship is seeing another distinct from the crowd and the hope that they might too see you. The grand romance is that a relationship continues despite its imperfections.

Customers are great. Fans are better. Acquaintances are pleasant. Friends are better. Advice is useful. An advisor is better. We place our trust, our hopes and the messy work of growth in the relationship choice.

As efficiently as modern digital platforms execute the transactions of our lives, they also highlight that transactions are not enough. We hunger for relationships because in their inefficiencies we are seen as unique and we find romance. That recognition and discovery is the human heart of our lives. No machine is recreating and sustaining that experience.

What relationships do you need to foster?

Freedom From Consequences

People yearn for freedom and talk about it a great deal at the moment. However, much of that discussion confuses what freedom means. Freedom means the ability to choose, not the freedom from consequences.

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose

Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

In the sophisticated philosophy of Kris Kristofferson’s country music song, for those with nothing left consequences are irrelevant. Choices are unconstrained. As the song goes, ‘Nothin’ ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free’

A tree falls. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

However, most of us have something to lose. Our position isn’t that precarious. In that difference falls the obligation to look to the consequences and to look out for those who can’t make choices or can’t deal with consequences.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Freedom is the ability to make choices and wear the consequences. Consequences are how we grow. Despite the many contrary views with respect to politics, speech or actions, this much vaunted ideal is not an absence of consequences. If you aren’t prepared to wear the consequences of your choices, then you aren’t exercising freedom. Freedom is not a luxury. It is a burden you work to sustain and that improves you in the process.

Consequences Fall

Freedom is not a reward or a decoration that you toast in champagne. On the contrary, it’s hard graft and a long-distance run, all alone, very exhausting. Alone in a dreary room, alone in the dock before the judges, and alone to make up your mind, before yourself and before the judgement of others. At the end of every freedom there is a sentence, which is why freedom is too heavy to bear.

Albert Camus, The Fall

As Camus highlights, choices have consequences. Words have consequences. Actions have consequences. Your choices will be judged. Someone bears the burden. Where that burden falls will depend on your community and your position in it.

Freedom is what you do with what is done to you

Jean-Paul Sartre

If you can’t see or don’t feel those consequences, you should ask yourself a hard question about what that means. Are you externalising the consequences of your action on others? Is your fame, prestige or privilege protecting you and exposing others whose position is more precarious or who have fewer choices? Or is it that you are in an authoritarian or paternalistic environment, and your freedom means someone else is calling the shots as to where the burdens fall? Because freedom from consequences may well be no freedom at all.

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

Thomas Paine

The modern freedoms we debate are relatively recent concepts in human affairs. They are hard won and sustained by the efforts of many across societies developed to support them. We are free because of our community, not in spite of it.