A Different Kind Of Normal


I recently returned from my second visit to China. It was a wonderful trip, from San Francisco to Beijing to Nanjing to Shanghai to Los Angeles in about 10 days.

Travel always makes me ponder existential things, and this time was no different. Here’s what I came back with:

If we let it, travel can be a very broadening experience. It can expand our perspectives and stretch our minds.

This part isn’t anything mind-blowing.

But I also realized travel can make us bat-shit crazy. Waiting by our gate at the Shanghai airport, Allison and I met a guy who was driven nearly insane by the very same cultural differences that we found so intriguing.

What a difference perspective makes.

Whether we realize it or not, we all have a perception of what’s “normal.” Our “normal” always gets defined by the circumstances around us on a daily basis. We don’t mean to do this; it’s just how our brains work.

But our particular brand of “normal” isn’t necessarily normal at all, is it?

I think about the family we met in the Hutong village in Beijing who took us into their home for a meal. The patriarch of the family was a kung fu master who trained with Jet Li.

His “normal” is nothing like mine, that’s for sure.

So here’s the big realization…

“Normal” is always relative.

A light-bulb moment like this is jarring, but this kind of disruption can also be a very good thing.

When I accept that other people’s “normal” is different from mine, I suddenly become less judgemental and more open — both pretty good things, I’d say.

Of course, at work the same thing happens. Every person in our team, department, or company arrives with a slightly contrasting version of “normal.” Though it’s usually not as dramatic as Josh vs. Kung Fu Master, it can still be surprisingly striking.

Everyone has a slightly different kind of normal, and this can be a very good thing.

If we let it.


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It’s Time For A Work Revolution


Since you’ve stumbled onto this blog, chances are good you’re already convinced that something about business needs to change. You might think that something about the way we’ve been working just isn’t working anymore. Well, I have a larger question.

What if it’s not just something about work that needs to change?

What if it’s just about everything?

Over the last few decades, the idea of “change” has become a mainstay in our businesses. Despite this, our organizational relationship with change is an intense and perennial affair, usually fueled by pain and tolerated only out of necessity. “Change management” consultants are hired, enormous “change initiatives” are undertaken, but at the end of the day, most things remain relatively the same and the status quo uninterrupted.

Why is this?

Our institutions are terribly limited in their ability to change, simply because of what they are. To a very real extent, an inability to evolve is actually programmed into their DNA. As Peter Block & John McKnight point out, institutions are built on the idea of systems. And business systems (at least historically) have been created because they maintain power and control by reducing risk and unpredictability. When a system like this does what it’s supposed to do, it is a harbinger of efficiency in predictable replication. It brings sameness, safe and homogenized.

But sameness, secure as it seems, is exactly what doesn’t work in today’s rapid, organic, tribal marketplace. And the fact that our systems strive to bring this kind of replication at all means they will continuously, invariably fail when they are used on humans.

This is the fundamental flaw in our organizations as they are built today.

Human beings are infinitely more complex than our industrial-age systems can support. We’ve found time and time again that reducing variability through HR — attempting to ‘Six Sigma’ our people — fails miserably.

Futhermore, as Umair Haque says, the habits our current business systems impose — the replication of tasks that are simply part of an institution’s DNA — are the very things that generally drive us to hate our jobs. But they are just doing what we built them to do. In a Frankensteinian twist, our creation has become a monster. It makes us zombies during meetings, dread Mondays, and hate the never-ending banal tasks that deaden our eyes and suck out our souls. (These tasks also do very little to actually create authentic value for customers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

What if we could begin re-imagining the very fabric of our organizations? What if we could tear down the industrial baggage of our old institutions and start to rebuild something meaningful, value-adding, and energizing? What if we could design a company that was life-giving instead of life-sucking?

What if we had a work revolution?

This will not be easy. For everything to change, it will take creativity, art, and flair. It will require pioneers, courageous and brazen.

I’m up for it. Are you?


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