Seeing the Elephant

It’s easy to assume that the more senior you get in an organization, the more you can see the whole.

This is only partially true.

It’s true that you have more access to a facsimile of the whole, whether through dashboards of KPIs or access to other senior people who run major functions.

But all these inputs are at best proxies for what’s really going on. While they serve as early warning indicators that can tell you where to dig deeper, they often lack texture, nuance, and context,  and are at best a fuzzy representation of the whole.

This is why it’s doubly important, no matter where you sit in an organization, to let go of the notion that the senior folks “just know more stuff” and, therefore, that they don’t have much to learn from or don’t need to hear from you.

The reality is each of us sees our own small, unique part of the elephant, and beyond that, we all have massive blind spots.

For any of us to truly understand the whole, we must travel far and wide, within and outside our organization, and hear what everyone has to say.

And we must engender a company culture that encourages everyone to speak up and share what they see. This culture must be reinforced daily—in how 1-on-1s and larger meetings happen, in what is said in which Slack threads, in how questions are asked and answered. The lifeblood of this culture is people who model brave behavior, sharing the important details early and often.

It’s so tempting to paint the pretty picture of what’s going on in our little neck of the woods, to assume that “nothing to see here” is the right, safe message.

Picture, instead, the power of describing the salient details, the bits that only you know, and partnering to connect that up with the whole.

Only together can we see the whole elephant.

Bryan Stevenson – Proximity

The other day, I had the honor and privilege to hear Bryan Stevenson speak in a small group setting. Bryan is a lawyer and a fighter for justice and racial equality, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative who has a list of accolades and awards too long to tackle properly.

Among other things, his TED talk, which has been viewed more than two million times, apparently got the “longest and loudest standing ovation in TED history”; he’s recently written a book that I’ve just bought called Just Mercy (it has a 4.9 out of 5 star rating on Amazon); he will be arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court in March about mandatory sentencing; and he has received the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU’s) highest honor, the National Medal of Liberty.

In addition to being a true fighter for rights and justice, someone who is living on the front lines every day, Bryan is one of the most compelling, articulate, and inspiring speakers I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Bryan is an orator, someone who weaves together structure and narrative, deep intellect and cutting analysis, all shared through poignant and often heart-wrenching stories. The man is a gift to the world.

Bryan talked about four things that need to happen to create social change:

  1. Proximity.
    Simple as it sounds, Bryan argues that the first thing we have to do to fight injustice is to get proximate to injustice, to show up and see things with our own eyes. When we see what Bryan sees (or whatever other issue we choose to see), we will, in Bryan’s estimation, have no choice but to act. As important, Bryan reminds us, the only solutions that work are the ones that are developed when one has an up-close view of a problem.
  2. Changing the narrative. This was a specific point that Bryan was making about the narrative of racial injustice in the US – What is really going on, Brain asks us, when, say, a 14 year old black boy lashes out and throws a book at a teacher? Is the solution to incarcerate that child or to ask what happens to a child who has lived for 14 years surrounded by violence? – but I believe this point is universal. For nearly all issues there’s an unspoken but powerful story that fortifies the status quo.
  3. Keep hopeful. We give up on issues that we believe are hopeless, wrongs that we tell ourselves simply cannot be righted. In Bryan’s words, “injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.”
  4. Do uncomfortable things. (Bryan admitted, each of his four steps gets harder and harder.) What I heard here is Bryan saying out loud that we simply cannot make real and lasting change if we stay comfortable. Whether it is the people who led or joined the civil rights movement (or any other movement that created large-scale change), each and every person made a decision at a critical juncture that they were willing to be uncomfortable and put themselves on the line.

All of these points deserve to be printed and pasted up on our walls as daily reminders of the work we have to do.

And when I take a big step back, what strikes me is that one of the most pernicious and unseen problems of our runaway economic inequality is the reduction in proximity. While it is easier than ever to feel that the world is more global than ever, more connected than ever, in reality it is easier than ever to separate: to see only the news we’ve told Google we like to read, to get updates only from Facebook friends, to live in houses and neighborhoods and go to hotels (whether here or 5,000 miles away) that are only for “people like us…,” to tell ourselves a story of connection and globalization and democratization of information when really we walk around surrounded by bubbles that we refuse to pop, insulating ourselves from anything really, truly foreign.

I don’t have a lot of hope that the momentum towards greater economic inequality will lessen any time soon, but one of the things that Bryan’s talk made me wonder is whether we would have more leverage in creating change if we worked directly on this question of proximity, and on creating productive pathways to action that, together with that proximity, help people start doing useful work more quickly.