Signals and Noise (Guest-Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger)
January’s been a hot month over at Kinesis HQ. 2019 was our best year ever, and that success translated into a resource crunch. Been there? I bet you have. But there simply wasn’t enough bandwidth to meet the needs of both clients and Kinesis.
Now, normally, most businesses would sacrifice the internal initiatives; in this case, we’d cancel our monthly blog post. While there’s no immediate cost to short-changing the 3000 or so blog subscribers (thank you!), we’ve learned this lesson too many times to count – consistency wins over fits and spurts.
Naively, I offered to help. I like to write, so I volunteered to produce the post. This month is Kinesis’ 20th anniversary, and I thought for sure I’d have something worthwhile to say.
But, as I put pen to paper (well, fingers to keyboard), I realized my instincts were to do anything but write. And, when I wrote, it wasn’t really all that inspiring. In fact, it was downright boring.
Wrestling with the mediocrity, I realized two things were at play:
- I was out of shape – writing is a practice…like going to the gym
- I sought out distractions (not to mention the distractions that sought out me!)
From this one seemingly simple experience, I’ve observed two things:
First: I’m a lucky man. The team at Kinesis can write like they pump iron at the Word Gym. Every. Single. Day. I realized I needed to start lifting, which is daunting since my fellow Kinesians are pretty much Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1989.
Second: Rather than share some new insights for a new year, or 20 ways you can make your business better in 2020, or 19 reflections of 2019… I’d like to offer a more immediate reflection: in going through this process, I recognized that the siren song of distraction wasn’t just a minor irritant preventing me from writing the next blog post. This was only a symptom of a much larger and serious problem facing business leaders.
Case-in-point, you probably just spent a solid 15 seconds watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger GIF. I know that, because it’s the kind of thing I was doing when struggling to write this post. And in fact, distractions are the penultimate barrier to a purpose-driven leader.
Curious? Give me 5 minutes (well, 5 minutes less those 15 Arnold seconds) and I’ll help you see in a new way.
Looking Down or Looking Forward?
Distractions are all around us – and they often stem from the devices supposedly designed to make us more productive. Think about it: you probably started your day with a phone or smart device telling you to get up. Perhaps Alexa reminded you to pack your kids’ lunch. Or maybe your smart watch told you to take more steps…or fewer steps and more stairs. As you moved through the day, your email probably reminded you of the dozen meetings for which your attendance was absolutely critical. Meanwhile, an untold number of technologies helped you chat with colleagues, told you where to drive, and which product needed your 5-star review.
This constant hum of attention is a mix of important and mundane; it’s a chorus of information – some of which helps, some of which harms. But all of it, malevolent and benign, has the effect of encouraging us to look down. Rather than training our eyes to the future – looking up at what’s possible – distractions hunch us over, focusing our attention on the “busy-ness” of business.
Still with me? Maybe.
Maybe you’re engrossed in everything I’ve been saying up until this point. Or, more likely, you just spent ~3 seconds staring at that graphic, shaking your head and pondering why everyone in stock photography is always so unrealistically attractive.
But even aside from too-pretty stock models, chances are by the time you’ve read this far, you’re 98% likely to have been distracted by at least one external force. In fact, today you are 1,000 times more likely to be interrupted than if you had read this article when I started Kinesis in 2000. Remember those days? Back when business owners wondered why they needed a website and if this “flip phone” thing would catch on. Ah, the halcyon era of running a business when “text” meant something from the world of literature, not technology.
Okay, just 2 more minutes.
The three things that matter
Today, business chatter is everywhere – normalized and part of our day-to-day. We accept that meeting invites, likes, texts, and multitasking are simply a cost of doing business. Indeed, Silicon Valley has built a billion-dollar distraction industry predicated on pumping dopamine into our veins with the fierce frequency of Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping iron. And the worst part? We revel in this noise, believing that busy-ness must equal productivity.
But against that busy-ness, ask yourself: As the leader of my company, am I realizing my highest purpose every day I come to work? Do I arrive and leave the office invigorated and excited by what I’ve accomplished? Do I love the way our customers and employees are thriving and making a difference in the world? Am I reinforcing our vision for the future? Am I looking up more than I’m looking down?
If the answer isn’t “hell yes!” to all of these questions, then start looking at the noise. What’s keeping you from building that plan to help your company survive the next disruption? Whose urgent email is taking precedence over listening to your customers’ needs and innovating a new way forward? Which social network is more important than listening to your employee talk about their new baby at home?
So, let’s challenge ourselves – one leader to another – to seek out what’s truly important in our life’s work. It’s not the appointment reminders; it’s not the LinkedIn connections or email notifications. Our value to the organization – indeed, our value to our colleagues, families, and community – isn’t measured by the number of meetings or emails we answer. In fact, it’s just three things that absolutely deserve our full attention and focus in the coming year:
- Building a great culture
- Maintaining focus on a powerful vision and mission
- Crafting a strategy to break through the noise
That’s it. Just three things. Do you still need to watch financials and run sales? Sure. Is cash flow management a necessity? Absolutely. Is your LinkedIn profile relevant for business development? Yep. There will always be important parts of the business that need our attention, along with an infinite number of distractions. But, at the end of the day, and with 20 years of hindsight, I believe these three things should be our north star.
Now, if these things are hard to do by yourself, I might just happen to know some folks who can help you impact what really matters. But even if you don’t need our help, let’s support one another in the coming year to make something meaningful. Let’s work ON our businesses in a way that creates opportunity, builds community, and makes the world a better place. Let’s resist the siren-song of distraction and look up for a change. Because when we look up we’ll see the awesome thing we’ve built… something so great that we’ll all be proud to share.