Lessons From the Canal

After I returned from a trip to Panama, which included a visit to its most famous structure, I learned that locks – the means for raising and lowering vessels as they traverse a canal – have been around since 300 BC. But of course, a lot has changed since the days of camels towing narrow barges through locks in the ancient Suez Canal. Today, cargo ships 1,200 feet long, and weighing more than 140,000 tons, can be towed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the marvel of engineering and perseverance that is the Panama Canal.

As I walked along the Canal, I thought, “This is actually a good example of a disruptive tech startup.” First, the French tried to build it, and got only so far. Then the U.S.A. entered the picture, and eventually it was completed. And now, bigger and better than ever, it’s run by Panama.

As it often happens with disruptive tech, the ‘early movers’ wound up suffering the most — and not just due to mosquito-clouds and malaria. It took many rounds of investment, new leaders, new ideas, and new methods to advance the enterprise to viability. And now, it’s public. And, by all accounts, it’s a huge success, having just increased capacity to keep up with advances in the shipping industry.

This was no ‘unicorn,’ and certainly no overnight success. But, as the old palindrome goes, “A man, a plan, a Canal: Panama.” (Palindromes read the same backwards and forwards, like ‘Ana nab a banana.’) The canal, just like many other big steps forward, came from a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

There’s a deeper level to the startup analogy. The physics of the Canal works like this. Passage requires the vessel to go from sea level, over higher ground, to sea level on the other side, so the canal is divided into several segments, separated by locks. A ship enters a lock, or gateway, and after the gate is closed and sealed, huge amounts of water are pumped into the lock. When water level rises to match that of the next segment, the forward gate opens and the ship moves ahead. The reverse happens on the downward path, with water being pumped out of a lock to lower the vessel to the next-lower level. Controlling the water level – the environment within which a ship operates – serves the ship’s needs, and progress toward the goal is ensured. But a lot more than specs and construction and mechanisms that make it all work: it’s also the team.

What struck me is that these concepts and processes are similar to the physics of teaming. If a working environment is carefully calibrated to align with the needs of the enterprise, projects move upward and onward, as obstacles are overcome. But If the environment is out of sync, you’re liable to wind up somewhere between getting nowhere, and teetering at the edge of disaster. The environment I’m talking about is what people commonly call corporate culture. If it’s every-person-for-their-own-self, there might be a semblance of progress, but it won’t be reliable and, over time, it may not be sustainable. But if, instead, it’s every-person-for-the-team, and through their collective efforts they bring together exactly what that team needs, they raise the chances of success, and lower the risk of failure. Just like the water in the locks.

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People are More Important than Things

For me, it all started with the simple idea that people are more important than things. How many times, I wonder, did I say that to my kids?

Right now, to me, it seems like only yesterday. A roaring blizzard had us stuck inside our New York apartment for what seemed like months. Andrew was four and a half, Marni just past a year. But, on the day in question, I learned a fundamental truth about teaming from those two unlikely mentors.

A neighbor’s daughter was visiting, and she and Andrew were deeply engaged in reconfiguring the living room furniture, to create a veritable city of interlocking tents. I knew enough to keep my architectural sensibilities to myself. So, I took Marni into another room and read ‘Hop on Pop’ for the fifty thousandth time. And then the phone rang…

Just moments into the conversation, I heard a lot of giggling, some mysterious crunching sounds, and then a wail… MOMMY…. She’s smashing our tents….

I dropped the phone, put my senior negotiator hat on, and went to investigate, ever hopeful that I could bring peace in my lifetime. If not world peace, at least some level of domestic tranquility.

But it was not to happen in that way. I tried all my best lines. ‘She’s too young to understand.’ ‘Big brothers protect their little sisters.’ ‘Mommy is getting a colossal headache and it’s going to be nap time in three minutes!!’

Of course, my little defendant-in-training was determined to fight back, and unfortunately for me, his little mind had had been carefully nurtured in the arts of persuasion.

He started by recapping the situation. “Mommy, we were building a Very Important part of our project (sounding as if the enterprise was being funded by Peter Thiel.) And she just came in and smashed it flat. And when I tried to reason with her and get her to do some work, she just ran away screaming.”

In an instant, I understood. This was no different than things I had seen happen in the workplace.

What had gone wrong?

First, there was a team on a mission: to build whatever their vision told them to.

Second, they had clearly defined whose responsibility was what.

Third, they were having a great time. You might even say that they were engaged and highly productive!

But then their team was descended upon by someone who could not possibly contribute to any of their needs.

Marni was not a great fit for the mission of the team, and didn’t have an appreciation for its mission, so instead of supporting the team’s drive to succeed, she wound up being a roadblock – leaving everyone frustrated and unhappy.

Generational change in the workplace can lead to problems like this, due to increasingly divergent views of what’s really important and how best to get things done. But that’s not the fundamental problem. The real problem is that if the needs of the team – as a living, breathing thing – are not made clear, and accepted by all, its mission is at risk.

As the late Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” She was not only my children’s favorite author, she was also mine, and an inspiration to me as a very young writer. This was an idea I wanted to share with you, with thanks to my (now very adult) children for teaming with me in the learning adventure called life.

Timing Isn’t Everything. Teaming Is.

Some days I have so many ideas that I despair of ever seeing anything come of them. You see, to me, all my ideas – like my children – are precious. They just need someone to raise them. Like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, there are so many, I rarely know what to do.

That’s what made it so wonderful to be asked to speak at TEDx-Bedminster*. Not only would this be a platform for my ideas, but in the process I would get to hear other timely and beneficial ideas as well.

The first TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference took place in 1984. It was the brainchild of Richard Saul Wurman, a Philadelphia architect who decided he would rather ‘architect’ information than bricks and mortar. Wurman envisioned it as an annual forum for “ideas worth spreading.” Today, topical TED conferences and TEDx (regional) talks are happening around the world year-round, and TED videos online get millions of views. There’s even a TED Channel on Apple TV!

Getting back to my situation, I realized this was a Very Big Deal. And so came the hard part: the Sophie’s Choice. Which of my many ideas was the one most worth spreading?

As I attempted to sort and evaluate and cast off, it felt like I was abandoning parts of me. And then I remembered an idea (NOT one of my own) that I had let go of many years ago, when Teamability® was in its infancy. It was the idea that people are made of parts and pieces, and can be understood as discrete systems. This letting go happened in a New York City diner while I was trying to explain the essence of teaming by comparing it with a plate of fried eggs.

I realized that point in my life had truly been a turning point, and so I chose it as my idea for TEDx.

Naturally, I turned to my team. They shaped and formed it. And they shaped and formed me.

I hope you find ‘Timing Isn’t Everything. Teaming Is.’ to be an Idea Worth Spreading, and that you do just that!

Team Well and Prosper!

DrJ

* Big hugs to the Richie Etwaru and the TEDxBedminster team & attendees, Glenn Zimmerman and team (www.madbearproductions.com), video coach Laura Walton (www.trustwinning.com), designer Jamak Khazra (www.bluesuitsonline.com), and the TGI team who made this possible!

Make Failing a Daily Habit

If you’re looking for a rah-rah success read, you’re on the wrong page. However, if you stay, I promise you won’t be sorry.

I love failure. And I am an expert at it.

I fail every single day. Sometimes I do it more than once, which makes me even happier.

So now you may be asking yourself, has DrJ slipped a gear or what?

Nope. You’re getting, as they say on Twitter, #TRUTH.

Because if you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough.

Or, as the poet Robert Browning, suitor of the elusive Elizabeth Barrett, wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” (Spoiler alert: He did marry her despite robust parental interference, and apparently the result was quite heavenly.)

So, what’s your excuse for not failing?

In an informal survey I just completed, I found that the reasons for not failing fall into three bins.

Some people just don’t see their failures. Or shortcomings. Or, for that matter, reality, in its many shapes and forms. Now actually, this is failing, but in such a way that it does no one any good. You can’t learn from something you never noticed, so it doesn’t count in my book. Also, in the long run, it makes for a lonely life. Sharing our frailties is a great way to make friends. How cool is it to have the freedom to share who you are, warts and all, with someone, and to know that they’ll still want to hang out with you?

Then there is the Bizarro World strategy, where everything is opposite. Instead of ‘You can’t win if you don’t try’, they recite ‘You can’t fail if you avoid participating.’ At work, these are the folks who clock in; drink a lot of coffee; grouse about office politics or the weather or any of the million other things that add no value, and over which they have no control. By the end of the day they might have managed to fit in some modestly productive activities. But maybe if they attempted something big, or at least new, and failed at it, and repeated the cycle a few times, eventually they’d discover what really living is about.

The third group is made up of those who do participate, but never bite off more than they can chew. And swallow. And digest. (How is this possible? Maybe it’s genetics, like curly hair or funny shaped toes.) Pristine resumes that show ‘progressive levels of responsibility’ and other things that HR managers love, are carefully cultivated by these folks. They would never, ever get involved in anything so messy as multiple career changes, startup ventures, or traveling to the steppes of Central Asia to study the history and culture of yurt-dwelling Mongolian nomads.

Becoming an entrepreneur is how I discovered that failing isn’t nearly as bad as people think. You can fail and do better next time. You can fail in one area while making huge progress in another. You can fail, and in the process, discover that your true meaning in life is totally not what you’ve been doing for the past X number of years, and be utterly grateful for that life-changing fail. And I’m pretty lucky, because that’s what happened to me, and now I get to work every day with a bunch of awesome people who have no fear of failure.

We accept failure willingly because the heaven we’re reaching for is really, really far from our grasp. And we’re not going to be satisfied by lowering the goalpost. In fact, we’d like to raise it even higher.

The fact is, getting there may only be 10% of the fun. The other 90% is in the striving, the sharing, and the everyday satisfaction of beautiful teamwork.