Thursday, May 19, 2011

Self-employment benefits

A friend of mine recently asked how I'm managing in this gap-between-gigs period. Partly in response, partly because I felt like it, I started writing down what I call my "unemployment benefits"... a list of unexpected perks of not working. I thought when I finished them, they might be my next blog post. It included things like being able to go to the grocery store when it is practically empty, wearing pajamas at noon, taking long walks and happening upon a family of baby squirrels in an ancient tree trunk. Stuff like that. It's pretty awesome.

But I'm also antsy. I don't truly know how to relax. Although, last Sunday afternoon I did a pretty good job of it. The light rain outside and raw weather required a fire in the fireplace and a glass of sustenance (Cabernet). So I read poetry on the couch for a few hours, feeling very much like my cat Lucy (comfy, lazy, snug), who sat close beside me and purred. Our house guest from England thought she was in heaven -- or at least very near home.

So, to answer my friend's question, I think I'm doing just fine.

Oh, about that list of "benefits"... I decided not to finish it. Maybe that's the whole point, the best perk of unemployment (or self-employment, if you will). I get to decide what deliverables I ship and what gets to slip.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Contrarian Values

Now that I have completed my course of study for my masters in business management, and have some time in between full-time gigs, I realize that I fundamentally disagree with several standard business assumptions. So much for the degree!

The following set of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive principles make up my best thought (at this moment) on the right way to “do work.” I cannot prove that this set of five will make me rich, but I will not lose sleep by acting within these values.

[Note: When I refer to “client” in this list, I mean anyone you do work for. Who do you serve? What transactions are you making? At any time, your client could be your employer, employees, peers, customers, the office janitorial service, even your family members.]

1. Search out redundancies. Don’t take a penny of a client’s money in exchange for work if you know they have the time, talent, and will to do the work themselves. “Value added” to me is not about doing more than what the client paid you for in the first place. Value add is why they hired you. They do not have what you’ve got, so they are willing to pay for your added value.

The reverse is also true (and, perhaps, more obvious): If you don’t have the time, talent, and will to do the job, don’t take it.

2. Create independence. Make it clear to clients that you are not interested in a lifetime commitment, but a short-term boost of value that will set them on the path to independent success. (Do I need to say it? OK… As counterintuitive as this may seem, such a generous and disinterested commitment to someone else’s goals will gain you a lifetime fan. You may or may not do work with and for them in the future, but your return on investment is exponentially greater this way.)

3. Be invisible. Shine the light on your client’s achievements, contributions, thoughts, and goals, not your own. (Reread point 2 parenthetical.)

4. Reinvent the wheel. Your cherished system was created to produce a particular outcome. Challenge yourself constantly to justify the use of a system/tool/”wheel” based on the outcome you now want to achieve. You may find you no longer need a wheel at all, but something altogether different. Like a box.

5. Ignore the problem. Focus on where you want to be, not where you are. If you are driving on the highway and your car gets a flat tire, you do not mentally pause to consider the flatness of your back left tire, wondering what possibly could have caused such a puncture, while going 70 miles per hour north on Route 95. You focus on moving as quickly as possible to the side of the road, and then getting a replacement tire on the wheel.

Humans are naturally wired to move to solution mode nearly instantaneously. Why don’t we carry that focus into our work? In many cases, it is because we are trained to identify the cause or causes of the problem before going to the next step (fishbone diagram, anyone?). When it comes to human and organizational behavior, however, causal analysis is limited at best. Stop getting distracted by “figuring out” the problems. Create a vision of the future that makes the problems irrelevant, then go toward that vision.

As I stated up front, these are my best thoughts about how to “do work” at this time. These have come from my particular set of experiences, readings, learnings up to this point. I can’t say that I have always acted according to these values. But I have reflected on what happens when I have not. It’s not pretty.

Bottom line, as contrary to conventional wisdom they may be, I have never regretted being in alignment with these values.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The idea of tea

I love the idea of tea.

I collect tea pots. I grow herbs with the intent of brewing tea with them. Tea is comfort, warmth, gentle inspiration. Tea is my ideal.

The fact is, though, I rarely drink tea. My beverage of choice most days is coffee – hot, dark, and caffeinated. Some nights I go to sleep thinking, “I will wake up and drink a very dark, very hot cup of coffee.” Sad, but true.

Until recently, I could not explain this seeming schizophrenia of beverage loyalty. Recently, however, a friend showed me a piece of paper on which was handwritten in pencil two columns of words. In the left column were characteristics of left-brained people, and in the right were – you guessed it – characteristics of right-brained people. On the left were words like logical, analytical, and objective. On the right were holistic, intuitive, and random.

My friend, naturally, prompted me with, “Well? Which are you?”

I was stumped.

My reaction after scanning the list was, “I’m neither.” Then it was, “I’m both.” Then, ultimately, “It depends.”

It reminded me of a discussion of introversion and extraversion I had with my mom last Christmas. She told me I was neither – or both. She introduced me to a new term – ambivert – which is sort of like having an ambidextrous personality. An ambivert is outgoing when necessary and alone when necessary. It depends.

It’s like tea. Or coffee. It all depends on what is necessary for the moment. My brain is not confused about its orientation – it adapts to the need of the moment.

Which has led to another, even more recent, revelation. For me, sustainable, meaningful work adapts to the need of the moment. A time for creative collaboration requires open space, places to sit or stand or pace comfortably, a white board perhaps. Serious writing under a deadline requires isolation and an ergonomically correct workstation. Noodling on a problem – a comfy chair near a fireplace, soft music, a cup of herbal tea (yes, it occasionally fits the bill), and people wandering about that are just in the periphery of my sight line.

Work should be this wonderful. In writing it down, I make myself believe that it is possible.