Black Holes, Missed Opportunities, and Alternate Universes

Leading the sales efforts for multiple software firms throughout my career, one of the issues that kept me awake at night was the idea that there were deals out there we didn’t know about in spite of our marketing and prospecting efforts. The thought of what we might be missing was the stuff of waking nightmares.

Think about it. You can analyze a loss, and find ways to improve moving forward. However, a missed deal—one you weren’t aware of or competing for—is like an alternate timeline you don’t know exists.

Add in a little butterfly-effect thinking, and you realize the deals you don’t know about lead to add-ons, referrals, and other opportunities outside your universe. Before you know it, you’ve lost a critical vertical, and you’re standing in front of your board with your deodorant failing trying to explain what happened.

Yes, that’s a bad situation if you run sales and marketing, However, I have an even bigger fear of critical conversations left unsaid.

The High Cost of Two Unspoken Critical Conversations:

The same logic applies to missed conversations. Not talking about the right issues at the right time closes off access to an unknown series of potentially game-changing outcomes. It’s the darned alternate timeline again.

1. Conversations Over Failing Projects

Continuing the space-time theme, many significant initiatives are in reality black holes masquerading as strategic projects. (I suspect you can point to at least one in process right now.)

These are the projects sucking precious time, money, and talent away from other opportunities, with no realistic hope of ever concluding positively.

Almost everyone knows the project should be killed, but ego, politics, and contagion of sunk-cost-effect thinking and talking (“With more time and money…”) precludes people from opening up and suggesting it’s time to bury the project not praise it. Executive pet projects are the poster children for this issue.

Fixing It Often Happens from the Middle:

Solving for this issue is simple to describe but challenging to realize. Every organization needs to work diligently to continually evaluate the overall project portfolio and assess each initiative for a strategic fit. Much like managing a stock portfolio, some efforts merit additional investment for the right reasons, and others warrant pruning or selling off. Sounds easy, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Overcoming the Ignominy of the Scarlett “F” for Failure:

In most environments, admitting failure and suggesting that after ample time and treasure have been invested, it’s time to “call it” is equivalent to signing your death warrant. We don’t deal well with admissions of failure in most organizations, regardless of what the pretty values artwork on the wall says about it. This has to change. Humans fail.

Bringing the Values to Life:

The challenge for top leadership and all managers is to orchestrate the creation of an environment where those pretty words “We value learning from our mistakes” or their equivalent are embedded and visible in daily behaviors. Leaders need to set an expectation of rapid and robust honesty on all issues and avoid the temptations of shooting messengers, creating exceptions, and generally living by a set of double-standards. They have to literally lead according to the values!

Creating Pockets Where Critical Conversations Flourish:

Again, tweaking the firm’s DNA to add-in or adapt and support this approach is difficult. And it would be nice if top leaders owned this issue. While some senior leaders do actually lead the way on this topic, mostly, this work is left to mid-level managers, team-leaders and influential contributors to create pockets of the right conversation behaviors as they build their teams and pursue their initiatives.

It’s double-bonus time if top leaders get behind these important efforts and start walking the talk.

2.  The Pipeline for Ideas

The dilution of a firm’s resources in #1 is serious business. Choking off access to alternate timelines by suppressing the game-changing ideas of people for strategy or change…well, that’s DEFCON1 level stuff in my book.

Darned, Complicated Humans!

We all know that humans are complicated. While our outward demeanor might portray calm, confidence, and in-control, internally, all of us are battling demons on some level. These fears or emotions, including shame, are powerful drivers of our actions. They push us into defend mode, and they keep us from becoming ourselves at our best.

As a species, we fear rejection, not being liked, not being a part of something, exposing ourselves to humiliation, or, not living up to society’s expectation of what “we are supposed to be.” Throw us into a group setting, and most of us navigate with our defense shields locked on maximum, hoping not to have our self-images rocked.

How’s that for the environmental make-up of just about every workplace communication situation?

You’ll Never Know What Might Have Been:

Much like the deals I didn’t know about in my sales situation, the ideas that aren’t being expressed or that are shot-down because they don’t conform, scare the heck out of me. These unspoken ideas are effectively timelines filled with opportunities that are closed-off to me and us because we didn’t work hard enough to make it safe for people to share them. #leadershipfail

Fixing It Demands Tuning the Organizational Operating System

From Deming and Dweck (and many others), we know the issue suppressing open sharing of ideas and approaches is fear. Ironically, much about the operating systems in our organizations breed fear and keep people in a perpetual state of defend mode.

From poor information sharing on strategy, direction, and situation, to hierarchical structures built in silos that beget protectionist approaches to managing and leading, much of how and what we do generates fear.

Add in the many stupid, rotten, or non-approaches to employee development, performance management/measurement, compensation determination, and even feedback, and you’ve got a witch’s brew of fear factors. And all of this fear shuts down the idea flow, chokes off conversations, and sends creativity out into the ether.

And, You Have to Get the Fear Out!

The antidotes to fear are: context, clarity, and most of all respect.

It’s a daily task to fight off the fear-inducers, and it’s something you as the manager, team-lead, or concerned citizen need to do at every single encounter.

Easy words, but in reality, this isn’t as hard as you think.

Know Your Real Job!

Armed with the belief and commitment that it’s your job to form and strengthen an environment for people to do their best work, share their best, most outlandish ideas, and try new things, the tasks that lead to kicking fear out the door are intuitive. But first, you have to believe this is core to your job.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The conversations that aren’t taking place should rent ample space in your mind and beget actions on your part to encourage and allow them to flow into the environment. The benefit of working deliberately on this challenge accrues in the form of creative solutions and new opportunities opening up entirely new universes of possibilities.

Art's Signature