If you’re at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you don’t have to look for waves; you are the wave. — Paul Graham
Operations is oftentimes the soil in which fruitful strategic insights grow. It is here that the business of business occurs. A seemingly never-ending stream of decisions are required to be made at a neck-breaking rate, a pace so accelerated that, in order to produce excellence, it necessitates something more reflexive than a deliberate, individual decision-making process for each issue demanding attention. This is a territory where broad-brushed strategy and lofty strategic objectives prove themselves too esoteric to add value to the task at hand. To be of real value, these frameworks must be translated into something more visceral and tacit. This territory is the domain of habit and culture.
The seed of strategic insights is watered by careful reflection. An ideal situation would allow for operational “crop rotation” of sorts: periods of intense operations buffered by downtime to allow for organic reflection so as to give learning the opportunity to grow. Admittedly, in some businesses such an arrangement is more plausible than in others. If, in fact, the environment is unrelenting in terms of its cadence, and unforgiving in terms of frequency of breaks, then it is indeed hard soil in which for insights to take root. Exhaustion of the “top soil” that fosters creative thinking will, more often than not, ensue as the end result of a myopic cycle that leads to disaster.
The pattern of behavior that produces this (enviro)mental disaster is myopic because it extracts disproportional short-term gains at the expense of long-term fertility and richness. The urgent is prioritized over the important. The insidious truth, however, is that the act of “prioritization” is almost never conscious. It is, instead, the de facto result of a decision making methodology that seeks (above all else) to eliminate conflict, reduce ambiguity, and postpone the difficult, no matter what the cost. This short-sighted, greedy psychology is a zero-sum game and coexistence with more tempered approaches is precluded by the fundamental premise of its existence–total aversion to the unpleasant.
Rather than being seen as promising opportunities to seed new creative ideas and foster fresh strategic insights, business challenges that require any intellectual husbandry are regarded as dangerous distractions–weeds that must be immediately uprooted–from the more urgent operational concerns of the business. Who has time to think about developing a sustainable revenue model when this month’s sales targets have still not been hit? This psychology survives thanks to a parasitical hope, an irrational belief in an illusive “bumper crop” on the horizon. This ever-fleeting panacea promises to restore equilibrium and sustainability to an ecosystem that is dangerously spinning out of control. “That multi-million dollar contract we have been working on closing for a year will make us whole and provide a break from this unrelenting flood of work.” The cash crop never ripens and the result is devastation.
This commonly manifests itself in the form of burnt-out managers, mentally and physically exhausted and creatively depleted. When problems present themselves there is not the energy to critically assess the problem and provide prudent solutions that prioritize long-term interests over short-term hacks. Instead, almost as soon as the wind starts blowing the dust begins to swirl. Rootless, the manager is completely powerless to control whether each new issue is a benign gust of wind that gently traverses his mental plane or the first rider in cavalcade of crisis that tramples with fury as it churns an unsupportable cloud of activity, a cloud that all-too-easily swells into storm triggering a far-reaching cascade of problems.
The once fertile plains of his imagination now lay fallow.
The result is almost always a mental dust bowl: total erosion of critical and creative thinking abilities. Stripped of his insulating topsoil, the manager now begins to react emotionally, defensively and the possibility of healthy, fruitful decisions is further relegated to the land of wishful thinking. At this point, the cycle is nearly unbreakable.
Like the Dust Bowl this enviro(mental) disaster is completely man-made. Fortunately, this also means it is entirely avoidable.
Take a break. Rotate your mind. Make this your number one priority. If you manage others, make it your number one priority to make this their number one priority. Balance periods off intensive operations with periods of reflection and forward-looking projects.