You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.
– Chuck Palahniuk
This post was inspired by twin events: a comment from a dear friend, and watching the movie “Fight Club” again. This is my 300th blog post here. Its been an amazing experience thanks for reading.
If you consider the prospect of retirement and you feel that your place of work does not need you and would not suffer from you departure, you aren’t alone. This is an increasing trend for work today. You are an imminently replaceable cog in the machine, which can be interchanged with another person without any loss to the workplace. Your personal imprint on the products of work is not essential and someone else could do exactly what you do. If you work in one of the many service industry jobs, or provide the basic execution of tasks, the work is highly prescribed and you versus someone else doesn’t matter much. If you are reliable, show up and work hard, you are a good worker, but someone else with all the same characteristics is just as good.
What’s measured improves
–Peter F. Drucker
I didn’t used to feel this way, but times have changed. I felt this way when I worked at McDonalds for my first job. I was a hard worker, and a kick ass grill man, opener, closer, and whatever else I did. I became a manager and ultimately the #2 man at a store. Still I was 100% replaceable and in no way essential, the store worked just fine without me. I was interchangeable with another hard working person. It isn’t really the best feeling; you’d like to be a person whose imprint on the World means something. This is an aspiration worth having, and when your work is truly creative, you add value in a way that no one else can replicate.
When I started working almost 30 years ago at Los Alamos, this dynamic felt a lot different. People mattered a lot, and an individual was important. Every individual was important, unique and worth the effort. As a person you felt the warm embrace of an incubator for aspiring scientists. You were encouraged to think of the big picture, and the long term while learning and growing. The Lab was a warm and welcoming place where people were generous with knowledge, expertise and time. It was still hard work and incredibly demanding, but all in the spirit of service and work with value. I repaid the generosity through learning and growing as a professional. It was an amazing place to work, an incredible place to be, an environment to be treasured, and made me who I am today.
Never attribute to malevolence what is merely due to incompetence
–Arthur C. Clark
It was also a place that was out of time. It was a relic. The modern World came to Los Alamos and destroyed it, creating a shadow of its former greatness. The sort of values that made it such a National treasure and one of the greatest institutions could not coexist with today’s culture. The individuals so treasured and empowered by the scientific culture there were relabeled as “butthead cowboys,” troublemakers, and failures. The culture that was generous, long term in thought, viewing the big picture and focused on National service was haphazardly dismantled. Empowerment was ripped away from the scientists and replaced with control. Caution replaced boldness, management removed generosity, all in the name of formality of operations that removes anything unforeseen in outcomes. The modern world wants assured performance. Today Los Alamos is mere shadow of itself, stumbling forward toward the abyss of mediocrity. Witnessing this happen was one of the greatest tragedies of my life.
People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.
–Peter F. Drucker
Along with assured performance we lose serendipity and discovery. We lose learning and surprises, good and bad. We lose the value in the individual, and the ability to have one person make a positive difference. All of this is to keep one person from making a negative difference or to avoid mistakes and failures. The removal of mistakes and failures removes the engine of learning and real scientific discovery from table as well. Each and every one of these steps is directly related to the fear of the bad things happening. Every good is a flip side of a bad thing, and when you can’t accept the bad, you can’t have the good either. In the process the individual has been removed from importance. Everything is process today and anything bad can be managed out of existence. No one looks at the downside to this, and the downside is sinister to the quality of the workplace.
Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about. This isn’t about being cavalier and careless. It isn’t an invitation to be dangerous or thoughtless. This is about making a best earnest effort at something, and still failing. This is about doing difficult things that may not succeed, putting your best effort forward even if it falls short. In many ways we have lost the ability to distinguish between the good and bad failure with all failure viewed as bad, and punished. We have made the workplace an obsessively cautious and risk adverse place that lacks the soul it once embraced. We have lost the wonder and power of the supremely talented person in the prime of their creative powers to create game changing things or knowledge.
The core problem is the willingness to deal with the inevitable risks and failures with empowering people. Instead of seeing the risks and failures and a necessary element in enabling success, we have fallen victim to the fiction that we can manage the risk and failure out of existence, all while assuring productivity. This is utterly foolish and antithetical to reality. The risks are necessary to strive to achieve difficult and potentially great things. If one is working at the limit of their capability the result is frequently failure, and the ensemble of failures paves the way for success. It tells us clearly what does not work, and provides the hard lessons that educate us. Somehow we have allowed the delusion that achievement can be had without risk and failure to creep into our collective consciousness.
Instead of encouraging and empowering our people to take risks while tolerating and learning from failure, we do the opposite. We steer people away from doing risky work, punish failure and discourage lesson learning. It is as if we had suddenly become believers in the “free lunch”. True achievement is extremely difficult, and true achievement is powered by the ability to try to do risky almost impossible things. If failure is not used as an opportunity to learn, people will become disempowered and avoid the risks. This in turn will kill achievement before it can even be thought of. The entire system would seem to be designed to disempower people, and lower their potential for achievement.
The other aspect of this truly viscous cycle is the dismantling of expertise. Expertise is built on the back of years and years of failure. Of course this happens only if the failures are actively engaged as educational opportunities that empower the expert to engage in more thoughtful risks. These thoughtfully engaged in risks still need to fail and perhaps fail most of the time. Gradually the failures of today begin to look like the achievements of yesterday. What we see as a failure today would be a monumental achievement a decade ago. This is completely built on the back of seeing the failures of yesterday in the right light, and learning the lessons available from the experience.
When we empower people to take risks and grow them into experts, they also provide the knowledge necessary to mentor others. This was a key aspect of my early career experience at Los Alamos. At that time the Lab was teeming with experts who were generous with their time and knowledge. All you had to do was reach out and ask, and people helped you. The experts were eager to share their experience and knowledge with others in a spirit of collective generosity. Today we are managed to completely avoid this with managed time and managed focus. We are trained to not be generous because that generosity would rob our “customers” of our effort and time. The flywheel of the experts of today helping to create the experts of tomorrow is being undone. People are trained to neither ask, nor provide expertise freely.
What we are moving toward is a system that is less than the sum of its parts. What I started with was a system that added great value to every person, and effectively was far greater than the sum of its parts. The generosity that characterized my early career added immense value to every hour spent at work. Today this entire way of working is being torn apart by how we are managed. People can’t be generous if they have to account for all their time and charge it to a specific customer. The room for serendipity, discovery and the addition of personal value to activities is being removed to satisfy bean counters and small-mined people. We have allowed an irrational fear of one misspent dollar to waste billions of dollars and the productive potential of people’s lives. Worse yet, the whole apparatus erected to produce formal operations are ripping the creative force from the workplace and replacing it with soulless conformity. It matters less and less who we are each day; we are simply replaceable parts in a mindless machine.
I might be temped to simply end the discussion here, but this conclusion is rather dismal. It is where we find ourselves today. We also know that the state of affairs can be significantly better. How can we get there from here? The first step would be some sort of collective decision that the current system isn’t working. From my perspective, the malaise and lack effectiveness of our current system is so pervasive and evident that action to correct it is overdue. On the other hand, the current system serves the purposes of those in control quite well, and they are not predisposed to be agents of change. As such, the impetus for change is almost invariably external. It is usually extremely painful because the status quo does not want to be rooted out unless it is forced to. The circumstances need to demand performance that current system cannot produce, and as systems degrade this becomes ever more likely.
At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.
The current system is thoroughly disempowering and oriented toward explicit control of people’s actions. Keeping order and people in line while avoiding risk and failure are the core principles. The key to any change is enabling trust for the individual to move to centrality in the system. The upside to the trust is the degree of efficiency and effectiveness that is born from trust; the downside is the possibility of failure, poor performance and various human failings. The system needs to be resilient to these inevitable problems with people. The negative impact of trying to control and manage these failings results in destroying most of the positive things individuals can provide. Empowerment needs to trump control and allow people’s natural inclination toward success to be central to organizational design.
In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.
We need to completely let go of the belief that we can manage all the bad things away and not lose all the good things in the process. Bad things, bad outcomes and bad behavior happen, and perhaps need to happen to have all the good (in other words “shit happens”). Today we are gripped with a belief that negative outcomes can be managed away. In the process of managing away bad outcomes, we destroy the foundation of everything good. To put it differently we need to value the good and accept the bad as a necessary condition for enabling good outcomes. If one looks at failure as the engine of learning, we begin to realize that the bad is the foundation of the good. If we do not allow the bad things to happen, let people fuck things up, we can’t have really good things either. One requires the other and our attempts to control bad outcomes, removes a lot of good or even great outcomes at the same time.
An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.
– Werner Heisenberg
So to sum up, let’s trust people again. Let’s let them fail, fuck up and do bad things. Let’s let people learn from these failures, fuck up’s and painful experiences. These people will learn a lot, including very painful lessons and get hurt deeply in the process. They will become wise, strong, and truly experts at things. People who are entrusted are empowered and love their work. They are efficient, productive and effective. They have passion for what they do, and give their work great loyalty. They will take risks in a fearless manner. They will be allowed to fail spectacularly because spectacular success and breakthroughs only come from these fearlessly taken risks.
May I never be complete. May I never be content. May I never be perfect.