Most feel sands shifting underfoot due to constant change that overturns previous assumptions of value. You can see it in comments from highly educated scholars talking about Lady Gaga, the internet, and ecommerce.
I always believed that human nature was immutable and studying five millennia of history showed it so. It is arrogant to think otherwise. Then I saw something that changed my view. My brother and I were in Altoona, Pennsylvania visiting my mom who was in the hospital. After some multi-hour stints in the waiting room hunger pangs prevailed. We went to a nearby establishment to get food: Chili’s.
It was the end of May and shortly after seating ourselves a group of fourteen formally dressed high school students came in the restaurant. The decked out teenagers arranged themselves in obvious pairs around a group of tables. It was prom night. The guys were in tuxes with over groomed hair and self-conscious grins. The gals were dressed in cleavage revealing colorful prom dresses and adorned with breast or wrist corsages. The couples were oozing post-adolescent sexuality. My brother and I smiled at the concentration of raging hormones and I imagined myself as that teenager not so many years ago. Then it happened.
After the prom couples ordered every one – and I mean EVERY one – whipped out their smart phone and went ‘head down’, absorbed in the fluorescent glow. A British word comes to mind – I was gobsmacked that seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds in the bloom of youth just dripping untested lust and sexuality were hunkered down, staring at smart phone screens. Something was different. Something is different.
The more I think about it, the more I realized that human nature, immersed in the technology of the age, has changed. We are no longer present in the moment, no matter how profound the event. We’ve become distracted humanity. This is important. We’re not a mile wide and an inch deep, we’re a thousand miles wide and a nanometer deep. In every setting where we used to be fully present we’re now distracted, spread thin. Sports games, bars, office meetings, vacations, planes, parties, commuting – you name it; we’re no longer focused on where we are. The cost of this distraction is a dissipation of what makes us human. It’s no wonder meditation is making a comeback.
I try to jog at lunchtime. Running rejuvenates me and afterwards I can focus on what’s really important. On days when I can’t get out, it’s usually because of needed immersion in a work or social event. I’m far more exhausted and mentally spent when I don’t get out for a run. It’s not the exercise as much as simply unplugging for an hour. That hour without the engulfing connection allows me to process and reorient. An unplugged hour is a rare thing. So much of humanity is plugged in all the time and inundated with every form of visual and audible media that we have lost our presence.
The second fundamental difference flows from that lack of presence: change. We endlessly course correct. Because we aren’t fully present and have always on communications we constantly change our plans and actions. This is true both at individual and organizational levels. I think the main reason Amazon does same day shipping is to prevent customers from making a change to the order. I worked at an equipment company where the customer would introduce changes up until the last moment. I worked with our CFO to write something very basic in the contract: change costs you something. Change, necessary or not, costs you time and costs you money. I would expand that contractual paragraph to a life lesson. Change, necessary or not, has great impact. Change without presence results in reacting to the moment so totally that where you’re going gets lost. Oftentimes individuals and organizations wonder how they got to a certain point. They often fail to recognize the results of reaction to constant change. Constant change costs efficiency. It creates quick reactions but it fosters friction and slow results.
The third fundamental difference is most disturbing as it’s enabled by always plugged in humanity that whipsaws from one direction to the next: control. I was an officer in the US Army in the 1980s to the early 90s and one sure fire way to get relieved was to micromanage. It was perhaps the first and most important lesson my first platoon sergeant taught me as a second lieutenant. If you’re going to handle a broad scale, you had to lead not micromanage. You had to communicate the ‘what’ and trust your junior leaders to handle the ‘how’. The status of thousands of critical logistical pieces and thousands of soldiers was handled by a few top level charts with grease pencil updates.
The US Army’s communications in those days allowed for transmission of mission, of the what, but there wasn’t the bandwidth to communicate much of the how. The how had better be handled by the respective leaders. And it was. I wrote of how that all worked in my war novel, Loud & Clear. New communications gear called MSE – Mobile Subscriber Equipment – began to be deployed as I left the military after Desert Storm. I realized that, once deployed, a general would have the ability, if desired, to directly command movements of a platoon. I hoped the general would resist the temptation. That hope proved futile.
I joined Applied Materials in the early stages of a remarkable fifteen year run and was tasked to build a group of Total Product Support Engineers. I had an interview technique that 75 – 80% of candidates failed. I put them in a situation where they knew the best decision for them to make was contrary to guidance and tell them they had no way to communicate to their boss (me) for twelve hours. Only if the candidate said ‘if you hire me to do the job I’m going do the job and make the call’ would they still be in the running. Most would whiff at this situation, ask about training, say they’d wait until sure, or try to get higher guidance.
I came upon that situational interview technique from my own experience. I remember solving a tough semiconductor equipment problem in 1991. I remember like it was yesterday. The solution came while I stood next to the tool and contemplated the movement of molecules as valves popped and servo motors whirred. There was a lot of discussion in meetings and desire to micromanage the problem but I was able to separate all of that. Later, a ‘hot lot’ of the first run of P5 wafers, glittering as I watched them move through the clear load lock, were processed through that same semiconductor tool. That hot lot was the first run of what would become the Pentium microprocessor. I wrote a fictional account of this type of troubleshooting and situational interviewing in my tale of Silicon Valley’s semiconductor equipment industry, Gold & Glory.
Those who passed my early 90s situational interview became part of one of the greatest teams I’ve ever seen. They went on to great things: running multi-hundred million dollar divisions, companies, and executive roles. Today, that defining situational interview makes no sense. Today, micromanagers use communications tools to control every aspect of our lives. The results, combined with the lack of presence and continuous change, result in continuous friction to all aspects of our lives.
Micromanagers require rapid course corrections and create utter disasters. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a case in point. I can just see the executives, upon learning of the battery catching fire problem, inundate the team leaders with detailed instructions to fix the problem with utmost sense of urgency. Don’t pause to understand – act and act now. Here’s how – it’s a minor thing – fix it now. Urgency! Samsung, with great sense of urgency, drove their reputation and a good deal of their value right off a cliff.
The two areas that most affect humanity, work and government, have used the communications tools to expand control to an absurd and destructive level. Combined with continuous change and lack of presence, processes that once provided black and white steps have become gray. Accountability in this environment is diffuse. I’ve seen many titular leaders and managers in moments of trouble exhaust themselves casting about for blame rather than owning the decision and process. After all, with the constant communications and course corrections it’s much easier to find blame than cause. And what happens? People slow down, don’t own, and fear responsibility.
Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, wisely states great companies separate the people from the problem and work the problem. In this over-controlled micromanaged work and government environment where there are little hard and fast rules, the people or the person become the problem. And mediocrity reigns.
A couple months ago, I went to a Reactor B tour of the first plutonium reactor in Hanford, Washington. That facility is jaw dropping in scale. The reactor was built from site selection to operation in eleven months from 1942 –1943. The tour guide noted that such an enterprise at that scale would take eleven years today – just for permitting. The rapid advances of the Space Race from 1962 – 1969 are another example of how fast we used to move. Today, the always on communications drives lack of presence, continuous change, and micromanaged control to such levels that a person can’t build a shed in their back yard without months of permitting negotiation.
Life friction is everywhere. You see it in expansive bureaucracies, in your tax forms, in your drive to work, in your job, even in your home. You can feel it. So much that we have to do is harder to do. Inundation, reaction to change, and stifling bureaucracy have warped our human nature in a debilitating way. The ‘good life’ requires more. It requires depth, steadfast values, and a measure of autonomy. Humanity requires more, deserves more. I wrote a couple months ago in ‘Take a Breath’ that things will get better. Recognition of this change is a first step.