01 Mar We have left the comfort zone
We’ve left the comfort zone. That sounds a little like science fiction, which kind of works. For a while I half joked that we catapulted five years into the future. Then I read this interview with Scott Galloway, who says it’s closer to ten years (and he’s not joking).
So we’re in this ‘future-now,’ which feels very familiar. Our brains tell us we’ve been here before and we know what to do. Here’s the rub: that’s probably not true.
There are new traps everywhere.
And we’re going to need help.
We’re going to need a lot of help. I don’t mean that sentimentally, which no one has ever accused me of being. No, this is next level, higher-order help.
I’ll risk incriminating myself and use the do-it-yourself projects in our house to illustrate. My partner, Kim, is super handy and starts every home improvement project with an intrepid, “How hard can it be?” (Hard.) Me, I’d prefer to do anything else. She, nevertheless, has enlisted my help on a variety of weekend projects that follow a predictable pattern.
“Will you come here and help me for a few minutes?” Kim asks feigning innocence. The day ends hours later, with the two of tense and snappish while I finish some type of electrical work.
I call her Tom – as in Tom Sawyer, a moniker I think she secretly likes. Her ability to recruit people to do almost anything is spectacular. And even though I’m onto her, I see the con only after spending a day carping at each other.
I’ve been Tom Sawyered.
We both know my belligerent help comes to blows in minutes. But for some strange reason, Kim still asks me for help. That leads to an important question: Why?
Why would she risk it?
Because anything new is dicey and difficult to tackle alone. Because even with the bickering, eye rolls, and literary insults, I think of things she doesn’t.
And, our thinking together is always better.
To my embarrassment, these impromptu projects have also honed my ability to solve tactical problems and make quick decisions, things I would not have called strengths. I’m a strategist and a planner. Planner.
In my career, I meticulously avoided operations roles, which were far outside my comfort zone. My nervous system was not designed to put out constant odd-hour fires.
But work is a mess. And despite my best avoidance efforts, I once became accountable for a fragile technical ecosystem built with a series of hacks.
The day I received a string of panic-filled texts, my worst nightmare came true. A big technical problem had shut down production at work. On a Saturday.
Before I could succumb to my own panic, however, a strange thing happened. A skilled tactician intervened – in my own head. Then I just started calling people (yes, real phone calls), soon troubleshooting with a team of engineers for several hours. I kept working the problem and facilitating solutions. I even knew where to look for possible errors with source code.
Source code? I’m not a coder, a designer, or an engineer. No one at work would have said this was my lane.
So how did I know all of this stuff?
That’s not an existential question. It actually has an answer – or answers.
Working in manufacturing, I learned from Engineers and Production leaders, who calmly fixed big problems every day. Thanks to roles in IT and Product Development, I could translate between business and technical teams. That taught me to pay attention to solution architects and how a bunch of unrelated systems can fit together.
My pals from management consulting had steeped me in strategy, allowing me to look at problems from all angles. My Army mentors trained me how to keep cool, even when my first instinct was to bolt, and work the problem.
From Kim, and even Tom Sawyer, I knew how to tackle something I’d never done before – and recruit expert help. And because I understood the angst of Business teams when things break, I didn’t stop until we had fixed the problem.
Sounds crazy, right?
But it’s not unusual.
That’s how knowledge works.
And we can all tell stories like this, where one piece of knowledge intersects with another and another, resulting in some weird combination of skills. These are the skills that allow us to do hard new things.
That’s good news since work is shifting under our feet. It’s less about what we did or knew in the past, and more about how we apply what we know with what someone else knows. Now.
That sucks for role clarity. The underlying systems (and our psyches) did not advance by a decade. We want things to be neat and structured – not ambiguous and chaotic.
So we need people to help us think differently.
That includes helpers, hecklers and foils alike. And it entails a fair amount of friction. OK, a lot of friction. But our comfort zones have already shattered. And the truth is they’re much bigger than we think.
I help people re-wire what they know to do hard new things.
(My brother calls me a workshrink.)
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