The useless revolutionary

There is something intensely appealing about revolutionary figures.

Their vision of a very different world often has a certain sex appeal that captivates our imagination. The sheer notion of shaking things up, fomenting rebellion, kicking those rascal outs, reinventing an industry or whatever clarion call the revolutionary rallies around can be deeply inspiring and plainly seductive.

The revolutionary may tap into real oppression or the zeitgeist of restless frustration. They may play on our aspirations or merely our desire to eschew the conventional and confront the status quo.

When we think about seismic changes in the world, innovations that redefined the business landscape, breakthroughs in scientific understanding, fundamental shifts in the way we experience the human condition or the redefinition of art, it’s hard not to attach the name of a revolutionary. Mandela and King. Bezos and Jobs. Galileo and Hawking. Gandhi and Pope Francis. Pollock and Cobain.

Of course, some revolutionaries are far more useful than others.

There are the revolutionaries who merely tap into fear. In their world, anyone who doesn’t see things as they do is an enemy who must be thwarted.

There are the revolutionaries who are really just critics re-branded. They find it easy to point out what isn’t working and to carefully label the “idiots” and the “losers” they deem responsible.

There are the revolutionaries who are long on vision, but short on details; whose sails are filled with the bluster of righteous indignation but who sorely lack the power of enduring human connection.

It IS useful to define the opposition and to draw clear lines. Calling out what we don’t like is a start. Throwing down the gauntlet can certainly command attention. Yet while anger may get us started, its utility as a means of sustaining fuel is highly questionable.

To be a useful revolutionary you need more than a picture of what isn’t. To be a useful revolutionary you need more than a list of enemies and a bloviating side-show. And you’ll need a whole lot more than a call to “take our country back” or a pitch deck that has “disruptive” in every other sentence.

You say you want a revolution? Well, we’d love to see your plan.

Mr. Grey will see you now

Right or wrong.

Good or evil.

Risky or safe.

Work or play.

A success or a failure.

Known or unknown.

What the Bible tells us or not.

Loves America (or England or Brazil or wherever) or doesn’t.

Makes money or provides meaning.

Sinner or saint.

It’s a choice whether we wish to see the world as black and white. We can decide that it’s okay to live in the grey.

For me, there is a reason that grey is my favorite color. And it starts with accepting that dualistic thinking is a trap,  that my way or the highway rarely works and that there is beauty in imperfection.

Not to mention, sometimes blog titles don’t mean what you think they do.

 

 

Incompetent, but valuable

We may tell ourselves that we know what we’re doing. That we are the masters of our domain. That we’ve got this and everything would be great if others would just get the heck out of our way.

Other times we fight the imposter syndrome, striving to maintain a brave face and hoping against hope that no one figures out how deeply we are struggling.

Or we may not even start something in the first place simply out of fear. We’ll feel foolish. We’ll never be good at it. Others may laugh.

Of course, the reality is that much of the time none of us completely knows what we are doing.  But here’s the thing . . .

We don’t have to be an expert to add value. Often it is the mind of the beginner that uncovers an innovation that matters.

We don’t have to be great to be useful. If I’m just a bit better at something you need than you are, I can be of service.

We don’t have to be perfect. Good enough is often just that.

 

HT to Aaron White for inspiring this post.

Setting yourself up for failure

If you fly airplanes, perform surgery or work for the Department of Homeland Security, when you have a bad day somebody dies. Avoiding a mistake is all important.

For most of us, however, our success is rooted in finding ways to differentiate ourselves and our brands in a world that is ever noisier, overwhelmingly crowded and increasingly blurry. Without innovation–without nearly constant evolution and change–we risk falling behind, or worse, sinking into the sea of irrelevance.

For the work we do, safety is not found in dogged adherence to a process designed to guarantee a specific result; where variation is inherently what needs to be exposed and eradicated.

For most of us, the works that matters requires that we adopt a process that explicitly recognizes failure as an inevitable outcome. Anything less–anything seemingly safer–is too timid, too boring, too fundamentally devoid of the remarkable, to have a chance to make the impact we need.

Setting ourselves up for failure is precisely what increases our odds for success.

 

 

Overplaying our hand

We’re told to hyper-focus on our core customers. After all, doesn’t most of our profit come from a small group of loyalists and “heavy-users”?

We’re admonished to double-down on our highest ROI marketing strategies. Surely if a moderate amount of email or direct mail or re-targeting is working, more must be even better, right?

And exhortations to find our strengths, exploit our core competencies and “stick to our knitting” are central to many best sellers and legendary Harvard Business Review articles

Lather, rinse and repeat.

And this all makes a lot of sense. Until it doesn’t.

The past few years have brought us dozens, if not hundreds, of brands that have gone away–think Blockbuster, Borders and, very shortly, Radio Shack–largely through adhering to these notions.  Still others sit on the brink of irrelevance–I’m looking at you Sears and Blackberry–because they pushed a singular way of thinking well past its expiration date and, sadly, the point of no return.

Even far stronger and far better managed brands fall into the trap of overplaying their hands. Neiman Marcus (my former employer)–along with many other luxury brands–have had to re-work their strategies because they became overly reliant on a narrow set of highly profitable customers and failed to acquire and retain other important and emerging cohorts.

It’s all too easy to become distracted by peripheral issues or to stray into areas where we have few useful capabilities. We always must be mindful of where the customer gives us–or where we can readily earn–permission to go.

But in a world that is changing ever faster, and where new competitors can often launch highly disruptive business models in short order, what got us to where we are isn’t likely to get us to where we need to be.

 

 

What are we waiting for?

Are we waiting for the conditions to be just right, for the stars to perfectly align?

Are we waiting to complete our research, to get our tools lined up, to have our mise en place just so?

Are we waiting to have a crystal clear picture of our end-point, our destination, our desired outcome?

Are we waiting for the fear to die down, for that nagging voice that tells us ‘that this might not work’ to go away?

Are we waiting for someone to choose us?

Are we waiting for the right time?

I have some news for you.

The conditions will never be perfect.

You have everything you need to get started. You can always fill in the details and add the polish later.

Starting with the end in mind is a good idea, but the finished product is going to look quite different from anything you can predict or imagine. Enough with the planning.

That voice that keeps us stuck isn’t going away. We must fight it and push through the fear.

And sure, somebody might come along to anoint you or pluck you from obscurity, but I sure as hell wouldn’t count on it. Chances are you’re going to have to choose yourself. 

We have to start before we’re ready. What better time than right now?

 

HT to Beth Dana at First Unitarian Church of Dallas for the inspiration and title for this post.

Do not cross this line

This past Saturday I was at the Tate Modern in London when I happened upon an installation by minimalist artist Donald Judd.

The piece is a large box that–through its materials and coloration–is evocative of a fire pit. Around the perimeter of the box, about 3 feet out from the sides, is thick black tape, along with the words: “Do not cross this line.”

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I found myself wondering why that was there.

Was it to enhance the work’s visual impact? I could surmise that the piece was best viewed from certain angles and being too close would destroy part of the illusion.

Was it to protect the artwork? It’s certainly common for museums to have various admonitions posted to keep visitors from damaging the displays.

Was it part of the art? Maybe Judd was messing with us. In a museum filled with bold and innovative statements, perhaps this was his way to test and challenge us. Maybe my reaction was exactly what he was going for? What would happen if I crossed it?

Alas, I never reached a totally satisfactory answer. And I didn’t cross the line.

As I an enjoyed a post-visit coffee, it occurred to me that we are told not to cross certain lines all the time. Sometimes explicitly, other times the inference is clear. Often the lines that are set are completely arbitrary. Most of the time they are drawn as a means of protection.

The most insidious, I think, are the lines that we draw for ourselves out of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of discomfort. And on and on. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we’ve set those boundaries. They’ve become part of who we are. They keep us stuck.

It’s obvious that drawing lines that don’t get crossed is part of any modern, well-ordered society. It’s also obvious that little that is innovative and meaningful happens without certain lines being crossed.

I guess if we’re going to have lines that we don’t cross we had better be sure they’re drawn in the right place to begin with.