Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 5, 2020
Spontaneous Management. This is the title of a course taught at Stanford by Professor Christian Wheeler. Look, I’m an expert at spontaneous combustion, but I decided to check in with Wheeler to get some new insights on the other.
The subtext of the class is “things don’t always go as planned.” Well, that is a duh, but the key to the puzzle is how to react when the stuff does hit the fan. Wheeler teaches his students how to “manage anxiety and develop a sense of calm and flexibility.” That’s easier said than done. In the heat of the moment, it takes practice to operate that way. That ability echoes the famous “10,000-hour rule” made popular by Malcolm Gladwell. In the decisive moment, the response needs to be automatic, no time to call 911.
Wheeler wants us to be “comfortable with discomfort.” I teach a similar concept to my CEOs which is to learn “not only to tolerate ambiguity but to embrace it.” Of course, the devil is in the details. I am not a big fan of the Zen meditation teachings. I favor the twitch muscle of short-term memory. No dwelling on mistakes. The next pitch will be arriving in less than 12 seconds.
Resilience in these situations depends to a large extent on not being afraid of failure. Fear of failure can paralyze a young founder. You become frozen, trapped in inaction. Then the fire burns your building down even though a garden hose was nearby.
Wheeler says, “Just because you fail at a project does not mean you are a failure as a person.” The same is true of my favorite felons whom I teach in prison. What you did then does not define you now and forever. People evolve, change occurs. A failure is not a scarlet letter.
I have grandchildren. They fail all the time as they learn to ride a bike or play the piano. It seems that the failure syndrome only begins to be paralytic as we get older. So, Wheeler argues for developing a sense of joy and play in your life. (I grew up watching the Three Stooges which may explain some of my issues).
Wheeler says that people “either want to seize control or avoid control,” and in building a company that honors collaboration, this conflict needs to be explored. He mentions the famous rule of improvisational theater. This means that whatever is said, the next answer is “yes and ….” The creative process gets derailed early if the response is “no, that is a dumb idea.”
The theme of collaboration and trust is a deep part of spontaneous management, because making the tough call in the moment comes from knowing the team, knowing you won’t be criticized if it turns out wrong and feeling safe enough to trust your own experience. Of course, this bonding and trust are harder to do during COVID. And the lack of proximity and social interaction works against having the personal courage to make a problematic decision. Wheeler says that an important part of building a team is to set up “minor acts of self-disclosure.” I call that a kind of semi-confessional, revealing something that shines a light on an aspect of your personality that is not easily known. You share a secret, and the risk is that it is used against you or not reciprocated. The deal is I showed you mine, now you show me yours.
One way to manage stressful decisions is to develop the skill of pattern recognition. I have seen that problem before and I know how to deal with it. But, when a new dragon shows up unannounced, then you need to rely on and trust the team you have built, and the sharpness of their sword.
Wheeler wants his students first and foremost “to make a connection with others.” He offers three ingredients. First, be attentive, observe details, pay attention to the small stuff, the nuances. Second, offer vulnerability. It was Jack Kennedy who said, “If I’m the dumbest guy in the room, we have a chance.” I love that line, and it has been personally applicable on more than one occasion. Finally, Wheeler tries to teach “openness.” The subtext here is curiosity, showing a genuine interest in what the other guy is saying.
Rule No. 679
“Soitenly.” — Curly Howard