Friday, August 5, 2011

Don’t Stand Below the Two-Holer: Part 1

Executive Summary:
As much as we might use logic and science to develop our best product designs or calculate our business bottom-line, as human beings we tend to make our life and business decisions based on what we “know” or feel to be right.  Take a moment with your decisions and assess the consequences.  Be sure you don’t invite disaster.

The Rest of the Story:
There is an old colloquialism that incorporates some colorful language, but none-the-less provides some very sound, common sense wisdom.  It reads, “If you don’t what to be [dumped] upon, don’t stand below the two-holer.” 

Naturally, the saying is a reference to an age before plumbing when cisterns or out-houses had either one or two holes.  It’s a message of warning that wisely suggests that we often invite our own disaster, or that our failures often result from walking right into them, and suggests that we can avoid disaster by not placing ourselves in the “dumping grounds.”

A friend of mine recently accepted a new role inside of his employer for more than twenty years.  Because it was a significant decision, he spent several days considering it before he accepted.  Quickly, he identified that the position is cursed and the last few holders of it have not lasted long and left as failures.

In other words, he was concerned that the position might be located right below the “two-holer.”  But, as I have already disclosed, he took it anyway.  Let me walk you through his decision process.

Already, he took the time to assess the threats or risks of taking the position.  He also assessed the potential.  He recognized that he knows more about the functional role than any of the previous holders, and believes he has some leadership skills that they lacked.  If he could succeed where so many have failed it could be a big win for him personally as well as professionally.  Also, he has been looking for some time now for a greater challenge.

Still, what about the threat?  My friend resorted to the age-old practice of logically writing out the pro’s and cons of the position.  It didn’t help, so he began calling his friends for advice.

I’ll paraphrase a-lot.  After talking with him about it for some several minutes, I finally asked him, “If the position didn’t have any more risk to it than your current one, would you take it?”  His answer was plain and clear.  Yes, he wanted to do it.

At that point, it became clear that the real question was not whether or not he should accept, but how he should ensure that he doesn’t fall victim to the curse.

Together, we sketched out some ideas and a plan to help him enter the role with some protection from disaster.  We constructed an umbrella for him, before he entered the “two-holer.”  I know he talked with some other colleagues about it as well.

What you will notice is that he didn’t follow any scientific Failure Modes and Effects Analysis process to manage his risk.  He did, however, engage some basic common sense and some outside advice.  Anyone can do that, right?

Now, let’s contrast that story with one from another friend.  This friend was invited to take his boss’s role at work when the position became available.  He too felt like the position was cursed, at least it would be for him, and he declined.  Basically, he didn’t want it.

Sounds sensible, except that he does want to increase his responsibility and influence upon the business.  He feels like he could and should do more than his current role requires.  I believe he is correct and clearly his management thought so too or they wouldn’t have invited him to move up.

Now, I’m afraid that by declining, he has permanently closed the door to opportunities to improve himself inside of his current organization and will have to look for those opportunities elsewhere.  It’s a disappointing shame, but it may be true, and it happens that way frequently.

Finally, I have one last example to share, and then I’ll try to tie this all together to make a meaningful point.  This last example is my own mistake.

I have participated before with organizations that engage consumers to test early products and provide customer feedback.  For the most part, participating has been both disappointing and educational.  Disappointing because I end up testing junk, or stuff that I have no interest in or use for.  It’s educational because I learn a-lot about the science, the mistakes, and the challenges of collecting and analyzing customer data.

Recently, I was invited by a consumer survey group to become a participant for it’s customers.  This time I got a little cocky and I let the sales pitch overcome my common sense.  I didn’t research the business before I accepted.  Big mistake.

Not one of the surveys I have received is a genuine survey.  Each one is a promotional disguised as a survey.  The kind of thing that tries to convince me that if I give them a little bit of money, they can save me a great deal, or tell me how to save a great deal.  Also, I get a lot of invitations for free quotes, “free” programs, and opportunities to buy stuff.

My phone rings off the hook with 8** area code numbers and blocked numbers of people trying to sell me stuff and my e-mail box needs to be purged daily.  That’s right, I wasn’t watching where I was going and stepped right into the out-house.

So, what are my points from my three examples?  I’ll make them simple.
  1. It’s ok to risk disaster if you do so knowingly and tackle the risks with a plan
  2. Sometimes putting the hip-waders on to slog through the [stuff] is worth the opportunity to grow or get to where you want to go
  3. It’s our every-day decisions where we neglect to apply our common sense checks and we find ourselves standing in the [stuff]

It’s not practical to apply elaborate, scientific Failure-Modes-and-Effects-Analysis-style risk analysis and mitigation to every decision we make, and for many of our decisions, the methods wouldn’t help anyway.  If I had listened to my gut, though, and thought twice about the survey group I joined, I’d have avoided a big mistake.

My friend who accepted the cursed position is off to a strong start by the sounds of things and did it right.  He listened to both his gut and his logic and walked in with a plan to avoid or protect against imminent disaster.  My friend who passed on the invitation might be happier if he had acted more like the other.

If my friend had instead accepted his boss’s empty role with a plan to deal with the unpleasantness he anticipated, he might be happier.  He didn’t “step under the two-holer,” but he also didn’t get anywhere at all and won’t be anytime soon.

As you make your decisions this week, take a moment and check for that dumping shoot above your head before you leap.  Awareness of the risk is the greater part of victory.  If you know that should proceed anyway, don’t be afraid, just go in with an umbrella to protect you from the [stuff].

Stay wise, friends.

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