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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Being SMART may not be so smart after all. 

christian-rosswag-154067Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? If so, I’m guessing that some of them are still in the works, such as those involving goals for the entire year. Are they making you frustrated? It’s no secret that, along with performance evaluations, goal setting is one of those things people never quite learn to love. And yet, setting goals is one of those things everyone (particularly authors and bloggers) expects successful business people to do, despite the fact that successful business people often hate doing things other people expect of them.

But tradition is tradition, so on January 1, I sat down, pen in hand, to jot some notes. And all I could think of was the old organizational command to make your plans SMARTSpecific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. Back in the day, these were supposed to be the delimiters of sure-fire goal setting. If your goal couldn’t stand up to those, it just wasn’t making the grade.

But this is now, and now is the age of innovation. And, being a lover (and creator) of innovation, I asked myself whether I should still be following the processes of an earlier era. Here’s what emerged…

Specific stayed, because if a goal isn’t specific, how do you ever figure out where you’re headed?

And I kept Measurable, because although I don’t like rating systems, I do like to have some idea of how far I’ve come, and whether I’m still on track.

Relevant made me think hard. When you have a very broad range of applications, or you’re trying something completely new, then relevance may not be known at all during the planning stage, and can only emerge from the process. (For the fashion-aware, consider the problem of ‘orphan’ accessories. I once had a fabulous, but useless, beaded belt that I kept around for ages. Then one day an ensemble appeared in my closet that just screamed for turquoise beads.) Sometimes a thing will make itself relevant just by chance, which is a good reason for having a looser definition of the word.

Then there was Time-bound: a no-brainer because I was thinking ‘goals for 2016’ rather than the next decade or millennium.

Which brought me back to Attainable. That, too, seemed obvious…until I did a quick check in an online dictionary and learned that Attainable things are within your reach.

‘Within reach’ suggests that you can get what you want without a whole lot of stretch or effort. Now, if you keep a scoreboard that you like to decorate with a lot of wins, put plenty of ‘attainables’ on your to-do list. But if innovation and change are what you seek, then SMART goals need a warning label: DANGER: Attainable goals may be damaging to your organization’s ability to innovate.

Focusing on attainable goals could also be a turn-off to the very people who are most capable of handling risk, making discoveries, and creating innovation! Those are the people who rarely ask if something is possible or not. They just go for the goal – asking bigger questions, covering more ground, trying harder, and stretching further.

In Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books, there was the White Queen who said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” No one would accuse her of SMART planning – and yet, believing the impossible to be possible is a sure way to bypass the barrier of achievability. Can you imagine what might happen if your goals didn’t need to be achievable? I can.

  1. You’d have nothing to lose. With no one expecting sure-fire success, you could feel free to take some wild-ass swings. Sure, some will be whiffs, but you might just knock the ball out of the park. (Believe it or not, fear is the biggest cause of failure.)
  1. You can still go for simple solutions. If they don’t work, you’ll be right: your goal wasn’t achievable. But you’d be primed to succeed, so you’d try an alternative path. And another, and another. And should you eventually get there, so much the better! (Being right and winning are not the same – but they’re not mutually exclusive.)
  1. You’d forever leave the ranks of the narrow-minded; the people who put the ‘no’ in innovation, joining instead the ones who bring positive change and brighter futures.

May your ‘impossible’ of 2016 become your successful innovation of 2017!