The Stubborn Glebe’s New Year

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It has been common practice since the early 18th century for British poets laureate to recognize each new year with an original poem. Not all are especially memorable but the practice of reflection and thoughtful commemoration by poets (laureate or otherwise) and fellow artists reminds us of our own obligation to consider the transition of these life chapters. As with individuals, the passing of a year is also a moment of significance for almost any self-defined organization and it is a valuable opportunity for its members to contemplate together.

Alas, most businesses commemorate the passing year with an annual report so deliberately dreadful to read that they are remarkable only for obfuscation or deadening self-evidence. My personal favorite is one annual report proclamation that routinely appears: “company’s ability to achieve its projected results is dependent on many factors which are outside management’s control.” I cannot decide whether this is simply a distinctly unnecessary expression, deliberately ironic, or an existential comment so profoundly frightening as to render it almost debilitating. Fortunately I believe it is the first.

Contrast it then, to Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” in which the poet, at the end of December, 1900, describes the departing age as an oppressive haunting gloom (“the Century’s corpse”) broken only by the tiny hopeful song of a thrush:

That I could think there trembled through     

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew     

And I was unaware.

Whatever our poetic competency, however, should not every thoughtful professional reflect during this time? For only in demonstrating that you understand what happened and why, do you win the authority to decide what could happen and how. All too often in my career I have seen failing projects and initiatives simply disappear as if they had never existed, like out of favor Politburo members from old Soviet photographs. What lost opportunities both to learn from mistakes and to model a self-awareness indicative of higher organizational thought.

Once we had a new product of such importance that we met personally with the CEO on a monthly basis to gauge the results. Unfortunately the product’s sales were disappointing and as results continued to lag, the CEO meetings got deferred, then more occasionally canceled and then they simply disappeared off the calendar altogether with no explanation other than the embarrassed silent acknowledgement that, for some reason, this whole effort must have been a colossal mistake.

How much more powerful to have gathered the team together and jointly discussed what happened and why. Were we wrong in our expectations? Did we simply execute poorly? Did the market somehow change without our realizing it? And most importantly, is there any reason to believe that the responsible team has learned from the experience and is less likely to make the same mistake going forward?

Public reflection is frightening but also energizing, whether it be in the context of a company, a community organization, a family, a marriage, or any other organized human endeavor. A leader must sponsor that activity in a way that solicits candor and rewards real insight, even when painful. The turning of the new year is a perfect opportunity to engage in that activity.

The key is open ended, non-threatening questions that solicit rather than inhibit consideration. Let me suggest two simple new year’s questions you may want to pose to your organization. I find it often helpful to give people time to reflect on them before they are discussed together:

1)    What one thing do you wish you could do-over in 2013?

2)    On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being “hopeless” and 10 being “irrationally exuberant” what number would you choose to reflect your own expectations of 2014 compared to 2013? (use the 1-10 scale because I have found that it is extremely difficult for people to assign a number without explaining themselves)

Set aside some time at an upcoming staff or team meeting, family dinner, evening with your spouse, and pose the two New Year’s questions above. Take part when it is your turn (if you are the group’s leader you may want to go last so as not to influence other answers). When it is someone else’s turn, listen for what is said and for how it is communicated. Insofar as anything reflects on you do not be defensive, do not justify or rationalize, do not attempt to fix. Just listen.

Through these exercises we often discover just how life moves on a ragged course at its own pace. In my very early days as a young professional I was the executive assistant to the CEO of a large Fortune 500 company so I often had to meet with the CEO in his office. As I stepped through the doors of the executive suite I always noted the two pieces of art that greeted me. On the left wall of the entry hall was a large abstract expressionist painting with splashes of tumultuous color. Directly across on the right was a placid, quiet Japanese screen of a calm pastoral setting. In my youthful conceit I thought the two incongruent styles silly together. But over the next 35 years in business I would think of them often. I realized only with experience that as I passed between those two artworks I modeled the fine line every executive should walk, between order on one side and chaos on the other, equally appreciative of the contributions of both.

Of course, maybe that is simply just another way of saying “our ability to achieve our projected results is dependent on many factors which are outside management’s control.”

Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe!

Application: Take some time to ask your team, your organization, your family the two new year questions.

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