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Finding a new rhythm amidst the chaos

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Lessons in time and patience from seeds for the sower

Last week a smart, grounded business leader said to me, “Time is moving fast, and it is moving slowly.”  Another seasoned global veteran recently told me, “I can’t remember what happened yesterday, and last week seems like a lifetime ago…and someone else’s life!” How can time be moving fast and slow at once?  How can I be so preoccupied with both the immediate present and an utterly mysterious future?  Some of us are so exhausted that we can’t think straight.  Others have announced, “I just finished Netflix.” It is as if we have lost control of time and cannot order it around anymore, confidently announcing what we might do tomorrow or next week or, as we once boldly and naively declared, even next year!

Around here, at least, the weather has been confusing in the garden with lovely sunny days followed by blowing snow and wind that rips through barren trees and rain so hard it dances in pools of its own making. As a gardener, I am focused on growing new life. Seeds are planted, especially in the little greenhouse that lies beyond my office window. There, tiny little specks of dust are driving me nuts because they will not germinate on my timetable. They seem, sadly, to prefer their own. I can fool them with heat and artificial photoperiod, but they know better and take their own sweet time about doing what I’d much prefer: sprouting. They are throwing off the entire growing schedule for the season, which all leads me to wonder whose schedule I am on, mine or theirs. I am coming to realize that something much bigger than me is in charge, and in a strangely comforting way, that is doing me a lot more good than harm. Here, on the farm, the land sets the rhythm. It gives the orders. And I must sense and adapt to its rhythm and not enforce my own.

Every business I am currently involved in –  there are more than a dozen or so – has had to find a new rhythm for these strange days.  No one’s time clock feels familiar anymore.  Once upon a time, we reported by day’s sales, or month’s end or closed the quarter. Then, we thought we were in ‘financial control.’ While those quaint activities, more related to phases of the moon than anything related to the business, continue, their once ‘accurate’ numbers are moving about like so many overheated pieces of popcorn. Surprises everywhere! Most of them not very helpful, requiring endless recalculations of cash and burn rate and cost and headcount with standards – another quaint notion – flying out the window every day. All of it rather disorienting, so I head back to the greenhouse for a lesson.

Small and often so completely unlike their parents, seeds come in various sizes and shapes, but they all carry the one tool we need so badly these days, they know the time. Built with an innate sense of rhythm, they can deduce when to stay dormant and when to sprout. When to resist the water I pour on them in great hope, and when to soak it up and let the wondrous cell division that heralds new growth to turn a piece of dust into glorious green. I can’t tell them the time. They seem to innately know what to do and when to do it.  Throw them off that rhythm at your peril. They are not to be trifled with by rank amateurs. They know what they are doing. I need to sense it and get with their program, not mine.

A healthy human company is like a healthy seed. It has an inherent sense of timing. It knows when to drive forward and when to pause, when to sell and when to build, when to store and when to burn its precious fuel of cash and talent.  Some businesses are seasonal, some run hot all year, and some have longer cycles of activity. I remember a restaurant in Moscow that closed over the lunch hour so its staff could have a meal. Lousy timing that, for a restaurant!  Or a consumer electronics business that knows when to bring new technology to market and a few that sadly, didn’t. Or a construction business that is now bringing to market home office modules – better this year than last!  At the heart of a healthy human company is a sense of timing; it senses and responds well. It knows when the conditions are right and when waiting is prudent.

The wise leader is even now seeking and looking for the signals that guide action or restraint.  The monthly and quarterly cycles are entirely irrelevant at the moment. We are daily discovering an unknowable future, and we will lead well if we spend much more time sensing and exploring our ignorance than acting out of false confidence.  While unknowable, we may anticipate the future in its rough shapes, in scenarios. My impatiently watched seeds know the precise conditions they are looking for in terms of temperature, moisture and photoperiod. Their clock is not driven by reporting periods but by close attention to their immediate environment and, by extension, the ideal conditions for action, in their case, for sprouting. That smart sensing instinct is what we need in our healthy human companies.  Instinct-wise, healthy human companies are not tossed to and fro by every strange wind of news that drifts like so much chaff past my clever chickens. Some actions to take…

  1. Forget knowing where this strange time will lead. Be smarter than to think you know and get re-acquainted with what your business is for in the first place. Know if you are there to feed people or make your customers more efficient or build safe houses or provide medical care or, in some other significant way, make the world better. Get very, very grounded on that. It is perhaps your only piece of solid ground, your purpose.
  2. Stop trying to forecast very far ahead. You will only be either wrong or right by accident. If it turns out you are right, you will become dangerously overconfident. Instead, get clear on how you might act and move as a business in a variety of scenarios and each scenario’s early signals. Get prepared for a variety of futures, not just one.
  3. Tune the decision cycles in your business – the way you make the important decisions like spending money and hiring people – to much shorter feedback cycles. If ‘normal’ was a month, think days.  If years, now think weeks. Quarterly calculations are bi-weekly. Compress your whole sense of time and your sense and respond cycle, not so as to be recklessly fast, but instinctively patient for the changing signals from your market. Hold purpose firm and adapt relentlessly, imaginatively.  As one leader said recently, ‘fail fast, fail often, fail cheap!” Just like my endlessly patient seeds, ready to explode in seizing opportunity when the conditions are right.

In these strange days, our sense of timing is more than confused, it is likely simply wrong. If we start from that assumption, as we lead our healthy human companies through this wondrous chaos, holding firm to our purpose, we will thrive and do good work, for many.

Here at The Telosity Company our motto is to “Do Good Work”. We are passionate about helping leaders build healthy human companies. For us, Purpose comes before Profit. We need a lot of the first. There will be enough of the second. If we can help, please ask.  Find us at www.telositycompany.com.

Chris Houston writes from his farm in Moffat, Ontario, where the ordered natural world and the chaotic human world get close enough so the former can teach the latter.

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