Over a decade ago I worked for a former Marine officer. He was a quiet, intelligent, and very capable leader, with a firm grasp of human nature. He didn’t subscribe to hyperbole; feelings were not facts. He was biased for action. His quiet and direct demeanor was off-putting, if not unnerving to some. I realized later that his style was refreshing and constructive.
I learned/relearned several things from my former boss. Some of those lessons are:
- Don’t shy away from important decisions, especially when you know you are best positioned to make them.
- Protect your team. Take responsibility for their shortcomings, as they are really yours. Do not take credit for their work; elevate them and help them grow.
- Manage upwards, more so, than downwards.
- Don’t put yourself into a position to be unlucky.
The last lesson, Don’t put yourself into a position to be unlucky, was, and still is, one of the most important steel threads through my professional career and personal life. It guides my decision-making processes, and sometimes get’s me labeled as negative. I am fine with that label; I consider it being more realistic and thoughtful.
Avoiding Being Unlucky
It’s really not about figuring out how to become lucky; I have no secret to increasing one’s luck. However, as it turns out, avoiding situations where you could become unlucky is easier. In short, it is not leaving your decisions and important outcomes to chance.
In my opinion, being unlucky is directly related to how well we control our situations. For the most part, every situation, in which we find ourselves, can be controlled, at least to a certain degree. The end goal is to avoid, as much as possible, nondeterministic situations and behaviors.
Reducing Variability by Controlling Inputs
So, how do we avoid situations where we have less than desirable control? It’s starts with understanding which situational inputs our within our control, and how they effect the situational variables. It ends with taking appropriate action to control those inputs and reducing overall variability for a given situation.
For example, those of us who work in Information Technology know how important, and sometimes difficult, it is to increase our skills. Learning is constant, required to stay current with the latest technologies and solutions, and often done on our own time. Scoping industry trends is also important to maintaining relevant (if not in demand) skills. When we allow ourselves to become complacent with our current knowledge and skillset, we flirt with skill-fade or even skill-rot.
“Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”
― Peter Drucker
Having skills that are not in demand, or even not having in-demand skills, could lead to less opportunities, and even employment difficulties. You could then find yourself in a position to be unlucky during an industry downturn, more so than others with more relevant skills. In this situation, controlling the inputs translates to learning and keeping your skills fresh so that you are better positioned for potential employment opportunities.
Undifferentiated Performance Can Lead to Unluckiness
Many organizations gauge employee performance by comparing or calibrating employees with each other. Within those organizations, employees that do not differentiate themselves from their peers, with whom they are compared, will eventually find themselves in a position to be unlucky. They will not receive promotions, preferred assignments or opportunities, and might even find themselves on the outside, looking in. The trick is understanding how to differentiate oneself.
At the end of an employee’s performance cycle it is often left to managers to represent the employee’s body-of-work upwards to leadership. Managers are on the hook to tell the employee’s story, clearly and concisely illustrating how the employee is different from others. Too many of us wait to the end of the performance cycle and try to recollect our activities for the entire cycle, all the while hoping to include the right anecdote that will impress leadership.
“Hope is not a strategy.” — Rick Page
I submit that most employees and managers do not and cannot always know what activity or result is most important to leadership or the promotion panel. While we can certainly include entries that align with our goals and those of our leadership and organization, that is not always enough to differentiate us from our peers. In fact, I have experienced instances where my results and activities were in direct alignment with stated organizational goals and principles, as communicated to me, and were still not enough to differentiate me from my peers.
Part of our managers jobs is to better understand that which leadership wants to see, and to craft our story accordingly. It’s a recipe for failure if we wait to the end of a performance cycle to recall our body-of-work. To avoid being unlucky at the end of a performance cycle, we need to provide enough meaningful content for our managers’ stories of us. To do that we should be managing upwards throughout the cycle, meeting regularly, and recalibrating our efforts as the organization and leadership changes, all the while aligning our activities and results to stated principles and goals.
Most importantly, we need to continuously log our activities large and small, paying particular attention to measurable results, regardless of perceived importance. Over time, we will get better at determining the scope and scale of what should go into our logs. And, at the end of the performance cycle, we will provide our managers with sufficient content and context from which they can better distill our achievements and craft the most compelling representation of our successes, to differentiate us. Promotions aside, this approach has served me well, and has helped me avoid being unlucky at the end of performance cycles.
Writing Things Down Helps
In the previous section, I concluded that writing an ongoing log of our activities and accomplishments helps us build our stories at the end of performance cycles. In fact, writing things down is widely considered a life-hack. According to Hannah Braime, writing things down has the following benefits to our lives:
It clears your mind for higher-level thinking.
It helps you process your emotions.
It gives you a record of the past.
You gain a sense of achievement.
It helps you think big.
It makes you more committed.
For a busy person, relying on one’s memory, without recording important details, can easily be unlucky. Most of of us can not control our memory enough to ensure that we do not forget important details; something is always lost. This is mainly because of how busy we are. While I can improve my memory, I don’t have exact control over it, like a search engine. To that end, I record details for reference later when I need them. It works like code comments; it helps me avoid being forgetful and unlucky. When I revisit a previous topic or snippet, I am better off having documented.
Follow How You Learn, and Do
I love to learn; in fact, it is my biggest strength. Most importantly, I know how I learn and best retain what I learn. After all, retaining is the most important part of learning.
I learn and retain through repetition. Most of us learn this way. A lot of us also learn through doing. I can learn rather quickly. However, if I learn, and don’t do or use what I learn, then it’s harder to retain what I have learned. This is natural. So, not doing can put me into a position to be unlucky, and make me have to relearn that which I previously learned.
Don’t Rely on Factors Outside Your Control
To rely on something means to depend on something, with trust and/or confidence. If that something is outside of your control, and even nondeterministic in its behaviors or characteristics, then how can you reasonably rely on it? What is the source of your trust and/or confidence? I would argue that relying on factors not under your control (or at least influence) is unreasonable, risky, and is, instead, the domain of faith.
I am not trying to question faith, but I am reasonably sure that regardless of industry, professionals rarely succeed on faith alone; moreover, they do not routinely rely on factors outside of their control.
- Manufacturers rely on reproducible processes and input controls to elicit desired outputs.
- As a software engineer, I have relied on automation, testing, and proofs-of-concept to reduce variability and ensure more deterministic behavior.
- As a UH-60 Black Hawk crew member, I relied on tools and techniques designed to ensure airframe flyability. My pilots had faith in me, but they also relied on preflight inspections and checks, and traceable maintenance records.
Faith is Not Terrible
Having faith in one’s abilities, coworkers, or teams is a productive position from which to function; it’s a freeing experience. However, control is exercised more and outcomes are less variable (less potentially unlucky) when said faith is underpinned by experience and knowledge. And, when that experience and knowledge has led to demonstrable effectiveness, faith is more easily justified. In other words, when it comes to performance, faith is fine when it is backed by controlled inputs.
Measurement is Part of Control
In my experience, you cannot or do not control that which you cannot or do not measure. Regardless of the situation, there is always something to be measured, gauged, and/or learned. There is always a metric.
“What gets measured gets improved.” — Peter Drucker
Understanding the right metric (output or feedback) to measure is key to understanding the amount of control or influence you have in a given situation. Getting the desired results, and avoiding being unlucky, is a function of identifying and correctly controlling key inputs. Specific results are the outcome of controlled inputs.
Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.” — Amazon Leadership Principles
Unqualified Assumptions are Inherently Unlucky
I am an introvert. For me, that means that I am intrinsically introspective; I analyze every decision, paying attention to many details, variables, and scenarios. I also know my strengths, and how they can be brought to bear in certain situations. More importantly, I know my weaknesses, and how to overcome them in certain situations. And, as a former Project Management Professional (PMP) I am aware of risk and mitigation strategies. However, I haven’t always been so thoughtful.
In my younger years, I was overly reductive when it came to decision-making. I over simplified things, and did not account for all the variables. This was partly due to my youthful ignorance and exuberance, but mostly I made too many positive assumptions, driven by strong desires for particular outcomes. In fact, I see the same behavior in my kids today. They over simplify things, and assume that situations will continue to progress positively. Their assumptions are based on emotion and limited knowledge and experience; they don’t know what they don’t know.
Making assumptions is a natural human response; it’s part of critical thinking. However, assumptions are just taking things for granted, presupposing, if you will, without the benefit of all the facts. Assumptions without data, knowledge, and experience are not enough. One of the biggest problems with assumptions is that so often they are made from an emotional perspective, and not from a logical base. These assumptions can easily put you in that position, you know, to be unlucky. In fact, assuming that something will go your way, based on how much you want a positive outcome, is relying on something outside of your control (and we already established that was a bad idea).
“Assumptions are beliefs you take for granted. They usually operate at the subconscious or unconscious level of thought. Make sure that you are clear about your assumptions and they are justified by sound evidence.” — Foundation for Critical Thinking
Assumptions can be useful. For example, they are part of Structured Thinking. In fact, Structured Thinking exercises can help you use assumptions correctly, and avoid the pitfalls of unqualified assumptions.
Conclusion — Mediocrity is the Excellence of the Mediocre
Are you excellent or mediocre? As the section title infers, you could actually be both, if you are not careful, or if you are unlucky. Mediocre-excellence is probably not one of your goals. One of the differences between the excellent and the mediocre among us is the same technique that can keep you out of that position to be unlucky. Most of the time, leaving things to chance is not a good strategy. Folks who rise to excellence, better manage and control variability in their lives and careers. Understanding variability and controlling situational inputs, consistently leads to desired results. Consistently delivering desired results usually leads to excellence, and helps folks avoid being, you guessed it, unlucky.