Most of us fall into the trap of having unhelpful standards. Whenever we try to prove something, we end up doing the opposite. Once we know something important is at stake, the cognitive load can be overbearing and we crumble under the weight of those standards. According to Jake Breeden in a recent Authors@Google talk, a requirement for success is the ability to embrace the paradoxes inherit in performance and find ways to move beyond workplace habits that masquarade as virtues. He outlines three paradoxes: the Excellence Paradox, the Collaboration Paradox, and the Creativity Paradox.
With respect to the Excellence Paradox, Breeden suggests that you may need to do less than excellent work to do an excellent job. One must decouple the work from the job and decouple the work from oneself. Breeden says one way this can be done is to get into the habit of sharing incomplete work – lowering initial standards so that you can achieve a higher standard later on. He closes the discussion by asking the audience “when do you fall into the trap of having unhelpful standards?” I realized for myself I typically have unhelpful standards in two key areas of my life: 1) when I’m writing and 2) when I present strategic thinking. When I’m writing, I always saddle my work with the baggage of “I used to be a sportswriter, so this better be good”. This typically leads to unecessary critism and paralysis by analysis of the work. When I’m presenting strategic thinking, I always try to stuff as much smart thinking into the talk as the talk will allow. This invariably disrupts my ability to present a cohesive and coherent narrative as the work falls short of the standard I set for it.
The second paradox he discusses, the Collaborative Paradox, highlights our unwillingess to step out of our comfort zones and interact with others that may have a different perspective. Breeden says too much of our collaboration is the same. We spend time in the same circles, with the same people, and just recycle the same thinking. And we try to pass this off as collaboration. He even has a name for it – the bait ball – where people cluster together to feel safe and hide from external threats. The work of a leader, Breeden says, is to make it safe for people to interact, criticize each others work, and still maintain a positive team environment. I’m going to challenge myself to interact with others disimilar to me and encourage an environment of healthy criticism while maintaining positivity. Too often I fear my intended positive criticism demoralizes the group and comes across as griping. Ensuring a solution-focused attitude is key.
Breeded closes his talk with the Creativity Paradox. The Creativity Paradox attacks creativity as narcicism. So much of the creativity in the world focuses on the creator leaving their mark on the world. Well, Breeden says, the world doesn’t need that mark. We have an idea. It gains inertia. But its not what is needed. Sometimes what is needed is the same thing that has always been done. It might not be creative, but its effective. And ultimately the application of that same idea in a different context becomes the creative output. Ultimately you can’t guarantee disruption through a process, but can improve the chances. I’m going to look for small ways to be creative. Instead of chasing the big idea, I’m going to focus on creative opportunities that do not require a grand gesture or idea and simply apply familiar techniques to new problems.