frayed edges and surprises

on an autumn saturday several years ago, i was working in my office while the rest of the world was enjoying the indian summer. i forget the particular problem i was trying to solve.

it was one of hundreds and i was proceeding in my usual fashion:

// solve that problem once and for all //

for years i had been the greyhound chasing the rabbit of permanent solutions.

i knew that if i worked

just a little harder,

a little longer,

a little more creatively,

i would finally catch that rabbit
have a perfectly running business
at last.

i would experience commercial nirvana, and emerge from the dark night of the ledger book into the clear dawn of administrative beatitude. monday morning would always be a pleasure.

// i was wrong //

i had my nirvana, all right, but it was the opposite of what i had been seeking.

on that pretty afternoon the actual truth finally struck me:
i would always have problems.
in fact, problems signify that the business is in a rapid learning phase.
the revelation was liberating.

i couldn’t understand why other people hadn’t told me this earlier. surely someone had noticed the stupidity of my previous approach to problems. they must have whispered to friends, “what a shame paul doesn’t know.”

on monday morning i looked around at my employees. they knew. i was the last to be clued in. don’t make the same mistake.

understand in the beginning that you will always have problems
it is there that the opportunities lie

a problem is an opportunity in drag
 a mess is a pile of opportunities in drag

// stay in the mess //
// love that mess //

it’s the only way to straighten it out. this can be a hard lesson to learn because most of us avoid single problems, much less big messes of them. we prefer our lives to be tidy and predictable. business people feel exactly the same way. we are taught that orderliness is the way to success: hospital corners and accurate books. this is commendable for housekeeping and bookkeeping, but it has to be watched on a conceptual level.

a new business
simply will not conform to any set of
expectations, predictions, or patterns.

it will have
frayed edges, surprises, and unintended consequences
this is a reflection of the world
and not necessarily some malfunction in your business.

there is a well-known jungian analyst who, in recounting his experiences with an array of patients, noted that most came to him with a laundry list of problems: their mates were not their friends, their jobs were uninteresting, life in the city was difficult, their health was bad, times were tough. in the early years of his practice, the analyst at first believed that his job was to help these men and women “adjust” to the world.

years later, he realized that his patients were right. their world wasn’t so great. marriages were almost necessarily precarious, many children were delinquent, schools were like prisons, politicians were corrupt, the air was filthy, and people on the streets were often mean.

in short, life was difficult.

in light of his “discovery,” the analyst switched his way of dealing with the patients. he no longer worked to help them “adjust.”

he encouraged them to recognize that their sensitivity to the world was normal. he believed that as they became more, not less, sensitized to their environment, they would start to do something about the problems rather than act the victim all the time. the answer for them was to challenge the world, not to adjust to it passively.

when your business encounters problems and messes,
stay with them.

// find something valuable down in the deck //

work with it until you know that mess so well it will never develop again,
until it has become your friend.

one of the greatest errors of much business literature today is its attempt to instill certainty with checklists, must-dos, the “motherhood,” ten principles, axioms galore, and other assorted truisms. the only axioms i’ll throw at you are designed to engage your thinking, not provide easy answers. business cannot be pinned down this way,


it is rewarding for that very reason.

a few days after my revelation about the nature of problems, an even more important point became clear to me.

if i will always have problems,
if every business will always have problems,
what’s the difference between a good business and a bad one?

// a good business has interesting problems, a bad business has boring ones //

good management is the art of making the problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them.

these problems are like a box of cracker jack,
containing an extra little charm inside.

bad management involves presenting problems in such a way that people seek to avoid them, put them into memo form, delegate, or toss them into the circular file underneath the desk.

good problems
bad problems

some good problems are too much demand for a good product (or not enough demand for a good product), too many opportunities to expand, too many requests for donations, customers showing up on sunday afternoon seeking a tour of the facility, other people taking credit for your success, having a staff smarter than you are (not at all uncommon), and having a competitor as good as you are, or even better.

bad problems are too much demand for a product you know is bad, not enough demand for that bad product, hostile customers, outstanding bank loans, and an over-worked, underpaid, unappreciated, and, therefore, dull staff.

your job as owner and manager is not to solve every problem.

your job is to create a company with compelling problems that attract bright, unusual people to join in solving them.

if the problems are too overwhelming, they are corrosive, but if a company is so dull that problems are negligible, your good people will flee, leaving the bureaucrats to run the show.

when you realize that you will always have problems and that it’s within your power to make certain they’re good ones, you’ll never bring them home.

you will leave them where they’re loved—at work.

problem solved.

× paul hawkens ×
growing a business

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