leadership dot #3281: caboose

If you conjure up the classic image of a train, it likely would look something like the one below: an engine, a few boxcars, and a caboose. For decades that would have been accurate, but the traditional caboose has gone the way of steam engines and the pony express. Today, modern trains zip by without the benefit of the watchdog end car, relying instead on technology to switch tracks, signal imbalance, and light the rear of the train.

The demise of the caboose serves as a metaphor for most projects: there is no definitive ending. No one is assigned to “bring up the markers” (as the red lights on the caboose were called) and verify that all have passed through safety. We speed through projects and only look forward, valuing the start of the next project more than truly finishing and reflecting on the details of the first one.

There are functions involved with driving the engine and others that require tending to the finish. Structure your next project like the iconic train and value both.

leadership dot #3275: limbo

As mask mandates have been lifted and phasing out of pandemic precautionary behavior has begun, I am reminded of a change theory I wrote about in 2018 (dot 2301) in which I shared a model used by nonprofit Alia. The diagram represents the “old way” on the left being phased out as the organization heads toward the “new way” on the right. However, in the middle there is an overlap of the two ways of operating, lovingly referred to as “crazytown” because some processes are the old way and some reflect the new way, often making for crazy times as people attempt to figure out how to behave.

I feel like we are all living in crazytown lately. I went to one store that required masks and across town the same franchise did not. One store has its dressing rooms open while those at the adjoining store remain closed. Some establishments have reverted to extended hours and others remain on condensed schedules. Some dine-in options are available while others continue to operate as drive-through only. A commercial on the radio today promoted a product for when you’re “stuck at home baking” followed by another ad for entertainment options that now exist. I flew on planes at full capacity, yet there was hardly any place open in the terminals.

The old and the new are intersecting at a slower pace than when we shut down. But before you rush back into doing things “as they were” reflect on what practices from the new way you wish to preserve. Our school district is continuing remote learning as an option. My salon has loosened some of its protocols but will continue bringing dryers to the individual chairs instead of in a central location. I think sanitizer has become a permanent fixture in my car. My pre-ordering of food via an app will continue as it eliminates waiting in line.

What will you add? What will you let go of? Take advantage of this rare period of system-wide limbo to make choices that will benefit you long after social distancing has been forgotten.

Download the diagram here.

leadership dot #3256: controlled

As if your smartphone did not already serve as the hub for so many functions, there is now another feature you can control with an app: the temperature of the beverage in your mug. The Ember company makes mugs that keep your drink hot (135 degrees plus) and allows you to adjust the temperature from your phone. Do we really need this?

The “smart mug” is not cheap ($129) nor is the travel mug ($179) and more discouraging than the price is the weight. Both are chock-full of electronics and could be used as exercise equipment if the fascination of controlling the temperature wore off.

But what this latest gadget signals to me is that apps are becoming more central to almost everything out there. It widens the gap between those who can afford a smartphone and those who can’t and also creates a chasm between those who are technologically savvy and others who are not as comfortable with this way of operating. Seeing yet one more item controlled via phone says to me that organizations should be investing in a first-rate app rather than treating it as an afterthought or optional.

leadership dot #3254: thrown away

I had dinner with a friend and between us, we ordered two burgers and one small fries. In addition to our order, we received 15 packets of salt, 27 packets of pepper, 15 pouches of ketchup, and 5 pouches of malt vinegar — none of which we asked for.

When I shared our experience with the manager he seemed unfazed and said that he would “talk to them about it.” I hold out no hope for change.

If a customer provides you with feedback, you should embrace it and see it as a window into a behavior that you may not otherwise be privy to experience. In this case, the inattention to detail and the excessive waste should be a big red flag that other transgressions are occurring. Little things do add up over time, whether it be ketchup packets or other lapses in performance.

leadership dot #3161: code

If you’re looking for a quick way to expand your creativity, find yourself a few friends or colleagues and play Codenames. It’s a game where you provide one-word clues that link a set of words together – allowing your partner to guess your words without guessing those of your opponent. It’s harder than it seems but forces you to use your imagination and to consider dual meanings of words. Does “march” refer to the calendar or a military formation? Is “strike” a reference to bowling or the picket line? Would “draft” mean an initial stab at writing or a chilly breeze?

Games such as Codenames allow you to see different perspectives in a light-hearted setting. Oftentimes, partners are on one wavelength while the opposing team furrows their brow as if they can’t comprehend how we were able to guess correctly with those clues. Other times, the clue seems so obvious to the giver but is obtuse for the receiver.

Codenames is good practice not only in creativity but in empathy as people realize that communication has different meanings to different people. People may not hear you if you tried to convey this message in a heated context or around a topic that engenders passion, but you may be able to make the point after a game night or two.

leadership dot #3147: trade-offs

Too many people have forgotten the art of compromise. If “your side” doesn’t achieve 100% of what it is striving for, the decision is denounced instead of celebrating the movement that was made. Often, people frame results as “won” or “lost” instead of focusing on the fact that something was accomplished.

Today rarely is anyone happy with a decision. For example, President Biden announced new immigration policies that were immediately called out by several groups wanting him to go further AND by conservative groups that opposed his actions. Biden halted the construction of the Keystone pipeline that pleased environmentalists and angered the Canadians. He has the most diverse Cabinet in history but was criticized because there are not enough Latinos included.

Dissatisfaction happens in every organization, not just in the political setting. To be an effective leader, you must remain focused on the overall goal and work to advance results to achieve it – without regard to whether or not people are happy about your decision. Reward your team for coming to a compromise by asking what the different parties have given up and where some movement was made. Continue to encourage trade-offs rather than hard-ball negotiations. Do what is right for the organization instead of what is popular. Stop evaluating issues through an all-or-nothing lens.

Real movement happens when we learn to embrace the gray.