We Don’t All Have to Be Good at Everything, but We Should Value Those Other Things

Last month, Deborah Meehan shared the following reflections on leadership and leadership development:

For example, the assumption of many leadership development programs with a set of leadership competencies is that each participant needs to have all of these competencies. Why? When we lead with others why does each person need to have all of these competencies when they could be distributed within the group that is leading some action?

The weekend before I read Deborah’s post, I had listened to Tim Ferris’s interview with the magician, Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame). The whole interview is really good and worth listening to. But I was particularly struck by Penn’s revelation that he had a terrible visual memory, which you might imagine would be a problem for a magician. How was he able to compensate for this, Ferris asked? Penn’s response:

My compensation is Teller. Teller has a phenomenal visual memory. And if you watch Teller and I work, you can very clearly see that I’m doing a radio show. Every bit that I write, I bring to Teller as me doing voiceover from off stage while stuff happens on stage. And then he moves me onto the stage, moves me as part of the action.

Here’s the re-frame that I would offer for leadership development that I use with my own teams. It’s not important for everyone to be good at everything. But it’s important for everyone to value — truly, deeply value — the different competencies. And it’s hard to truly, deeply value those other competencies unless you’ve had a chance to experience what it’s like with them and what it’s like without them.

When I’m working with new collaboration practitioners in a meeting context, I always make them responsible for logistics and operations. Most collaboration practitioners who come to me are not good at these things, nor do they care to be good at them. They usually want to learn how to be good facilitators, and they think facilitation is all about presence or group dynamics or personal development.

However, when it comes to bringing a group alive, design is much more important than facilitation, and logistics are a critical part of design. When you’re in a poorly lit room with heavy, inadequate quantities of food, your meeting is going to suffer. When your participants have trouble checking into their hotels or are not clear on where the meeting is, your meeting is going to suffer. When you’ve planned a whole module around posters hanging up around the room, only to learn that you’re not allowed to hang things on the wall, your meeting is going to suffer.

Many collaboration practitioners look at this as an opportunity to improvise. Sure, improvisation is an important competency, but why put yourself in this position in the first place when it’s completely unnecessary? The reason most practitioners put themselves in this position is that they don’t like to handle the logistics and they think they can get by without it. And that’s often true. But this logic breaks down as the stakes get higher.

What I try to teach others is to value the things that are in your control so that, in the moment, you can be fully present to the things that you can’t. My end goal isn’t to make every collaboration practitioner good at logistics. My end goal is to have collaboration practitioners value it, so that if they’re not good at it, they recruit people who are, and they learn to work well with them.

Charles and Ray Eames on Design

Charles Eames’s diagram explaining the design process. From the Oakland Museum of California’s outstanding Charles and Ray Eames exhibit.

I saw the Charles and Ray Eames exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California this past weekend. (Thanks to James Cham for prolifically tweeting about it. It was really, really good.) Among the many highlights was this 1972 interview on design. It’s short and sweet, and you should read the whole thing. Here are my favorite excerpts:

What is your definition of “Design,” Monsieur Eames?

One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.

Is Design an expression of art?

I would rather say it’s an expression of purpose. It may, if it is good enough, later be judged as art.

Is it a method of general expression?

No. It is a method of action.

Is Design a creation of an individual?

No, because to be realistic, one must always recognize the influence of those that have gone before.

Is Design a creation of a group?

Very often.

Is there a Design ethic?

There are always Design constraints, and these often imply an ethic.

Does Design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful?

Yes, even though the use might be very subtle.

Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure

Who would say that pleasure is not useful?

To whom does Design address itself: to the greatest number? to the specialists or the enlightened amateur? to a privileged social class?

Design addresses itself to the need.

Managing Complexity: Exploring the Cockpit of a 1960s F-5 Fighter Jet

The other day, I visited the Western Museum of Flight with my friend, Ed. It’s a tiny, volunteer-run museum next to Zamperini Field in Torrance, California, and it boasts several original prototypes of some iconic fighter jets, which I enjoyed seeing. But the surprising highlight of the visit for me was sitting in the cockpit of an F-5.

I was largely apathetic about the F-5 at first. It’s an older jet (first deployed in the early 1960s), and it was mostly an export and training plane. However, it was the only plane where we got to go into the cockpit, and I had never sat in the cockpit of any fighter jet before.

My first reaction was surprise at how comfortable it was in there. Much better than my office chair! (I need to get a new office chair.)

My second reaction was overwhelm. Take a look at this instrument panel:

Here’s a more dynamic view:

That’s a whole lot of dials and buttons and levers to track, all while flying at the speed of the sound and dogfighting with other fighters. I felt awe and appreciation for the pilots, who somehow were able to monitor all of this complexity in real-time.

After I got over my initial overwhelm, I took a closer look. To my surprise, everything seemed to make sense. Dials and buttons were clearly labeled. Color-coding helped me quickly figure out which buttons I should avoid. The buttons and switches felt good when I pressed and flipped them — not enough resistance to be hard, but enough to feel solid and high-quality. It doesn’t hide the complexity, but it makes it manageable, even enjoyable. Look more closely at the weapons panel on the lower left:

Notice the diagrams and descriptions. Notice the spacing — dense, but comfortable.

When you think about it, of course the inside is well-designed. A jet is a high-performance device, and the pilot’s life literally depends on their ability to process massive amounts of complexity in real-time. Still, I found the design inspiring. I wish all of my dashboards were designed as well.

Here’s a more zoomed out look at what it’s like to sit in the cockpit, along with some additional commentary:

Grant Achatz, Small Business, Worldly Impact

Life, on the Line is the remarkable story of Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and widely acknowledged as one of the best chefs in the world. It’s a compelling play-by-play of the commitment, vision, and tenacity required to be the best. It’s also a beautiful tale of the mentorship (from Thomas Keller), partnership (with Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea and coauthor of the book), and friendship (with Keller, Kokonas, and many others) that kept Achatz on track. There’s even a bad guy (Charlie Trotter).

Oh yeah, and then there’s the tongue cancer.

In 2007, barely into his 30s and shortly after reaching the pinnacle of the restaurant world, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer. The prognosis was horrible. Most people with this form of cancer lose their tongue, half their face, and part of their neck. Only 50% survive after surgery. Achatz didn’t see the point of living this way and was ready to give up. Then he got lucky and found his way into a clinical trial at Northwestern. He managed to survive, tongue and face intact, but he also lost his sense of taste for many months (a story well-documented by the New Yorker in 2008).

The book was a page-turner in so many ways, and it’s a great read for anyone into food, high-performance collaboration, design, or new media. It’s a well-told story overall, but in my current state of exploration around impact, there was one brief, throwaway line in the Epilogue that caught my attention:

Alinea is a small business run by a small group of people.

After reading all of the great things that Achatz accomplished, and knowing the broader context for his story, it was remarkable to see his restaurant described this way. I was somewhat incredulous, so I ran the numbers using hints from the book. Sixty covers a night at an average of $200 a cover, five nights a week, 51 weeks a year for the flagship Alinea (not counting his other two restaurants, book royalties, appearances, etc.) — about $3 million in annual revenue. Given the downtown Chicago real estate, the cost of sourcing countless top-quality, often obscure ingredients, and 60+ salaries, it’s a miracle that they make any money at all.

So yes, it seems quite accurate to call Alinea a small business. Somehow, I found this comforting and inspiring. I want to live comfortably and joyfully, and I want to make an impact. I think it’s easy to get into the mindset that you have to create some sort of global, financial monolith in order to achieve that kind of success, but I don’t think that’s right. I like small business. I’ve started two of them, and I’d like to be part of another one. You can do that and make an impact.

Achatz’s story offers somewhat of a playbook for doing that. (It’s not the perfect template. Work-life balance is clearly not important to him. Maybe that’s an inevitable trade-off, but I haven’t quite succumbed to that belief yet.) I think the basic formula is simple, reminiscent of Steve Martin’s career advice to young comics:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

There are lots of things that have to happen in order to scale your impact, but it starts with constantly working on your craft, constantly striving to be the very best you can be. Do that, be a good person, and all that other stuff will eventually fall into place. This book was an excellent reminder of that.