I only see three possibilities.
There’s new news about COVID-19 every day. But as I’m writing this, I only see three possibilities.
One, we continue to pursue our ordinary lives, imagining this virus doesn’t really matter. We keep going to our jobs, to church, to parties. We cling fast to life as we have always known it, willing it to stay the same. We do our work because we have to, because our economy must stay in motion to survive.
But if we do this, many human beings may not survive.
And then, life as we’ve always known it changes anyway. That’s why this option is no option. This first possibility is one we can’t allow.
We have to let it go.
That’s painful; it means loss and change. We’ll have to grieve and mourn. To stay home costs us something.
But it saves lives. We must choose it, every day, however long it takes.
That leaves two possibilities.
Two, we slow down our interactions – and thus, our economy – from sprint to crawl. We suffer. But we save lives, too. We embrace temporary change to save ourselves and others.
In a couple months, the threat is past.
And then it’s back to our old normal. Our old jobs, our favorite restaurants, our old haunts. Old incomes, rents and mortgage payments. Our old social and financial hierarchies.
This possibility, in which the present phase of social distancing takes weeks or months, means we emerge from isolation to re-start our world the way it was – albeit in a deep recession. It may take great effort – bailouts and exemptions, waivers, stimulus packages, and a lot of good old-fashioned human kindness – to keep jobs and businesses alive in deep freeze long enough to wait the virus out. But for a couple weeks or months, perhaps enough of us could hold our economic breath.
We’d take the hit – but we’d keep on going. Money lost, lives saved.
And we’d rebuild from there.
But that’s assuming extreme social distancing need only last for weeks or months. That’s the assumption governments and businesses – including mine – are working with right now. The CDC said wait 8 weeks; we’ll wait 8 weeks. Write continuity plans; make it through two months with low cash flow. Then get to work.
Remarkable, incredible. A painful, monumental possibility. We grieve this outcome – and we hope for it as well. We hope the world returns to what it was.
But we don’t know yet, do we? There’s another possibility.
Three, there’s the possibility that social distancing persists in some form for a year or more. Some experts warn us that this virus may be something we cannot wait out: It goes away when there’s a vaccine, not before. Without vaccines, the threat remains.
And we remain apart, in economic freefall.
That’s why we’ve already made vaccines so quickly. But if you intend to give a vaccine to most of the human race, you need to test it very carefully. We’re doing that. And tests take time. They take more than a year.
And that’s the rub. If going back to work before vaccines are ready means exposing anyone to deadly illness, we can’t do it. We can’t turn back and choose the first possibility. We can’t trade our economic health for someone else’s actual health.
So what if saving lives means economic death?
My service business can’t hold out for 12-to-18 months with zero income. Not unless we fundamentally transform it; not unless we pivot so severely that the business isn’t the same business any more.
Most can’t. More than 40% of private-sector jobs in the U.S. come from small business; what if most of those jobs disappeared at the same time? How safe are landlords then, or lenders? Would even our biggest businesses survive without those customers?
The third possibility, the 12-to-18-month possibility, may mean we don’t need economic life support.
We need a resurrection.
Economic rules we used to live by simply don’t apply in this scenario. We’ll need a new economy, new rules. That’s awful. And it’s also cause for hope.
Because the truth is, our economy already didn’t work. Before COVID-19 came, it wasn’t possible for families to make ends meet on a standard salary. Before COVID-19 came, people who weren’t born with wealth had little chance to buy a house or build a business to success. Before COVID-19 came, the way we were doing things financially was working… but not all that well.
It wasn’t just. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t healthy.
This third possibility may mean we have no choice except to change it.
Here’s the most important question, then: Can you imagine something better?
Shut down swaths of our economy for 12 to 18 months, and we could lose it all. But we’ll lose nothing, too: Our infrastructure isn’t going anywhere. We’ll still have running water, groceries, transportation, electricity. We’ll have our homes and highways, planes and shipping lanes and spreadsheets and skyscrapers. Everything that’s given us the most amazing quality of life experienced by any human beings in any time or place – none of it’s going anywhere.
We just have to imagine a new way to pay for it.
In the worst-case scenario, if we cling to old ways of doing things, we lose. Imagine a world where, out of work for more than year, almost nobody can afford to pay their power bill. Do we shut off the power to every home, until utilities have no more customers and power plants themselves shut down? How foolish would that be?
In business, when one customer can’t pay, you cancel their account. But when all customers can’t pay, you cancel your own business model. Losing every customer won’t help you, so you find a different way to stay in business.
What if we could find a different way to stay in civilization?
What if this new virus, when it’s gone, provides us with a hard reset – a chance to rewrite rules, to do things differently and better? What if the Year of the Virus was also, to pick just one example, the Year of Release?
I can’t say how we do that; I’m no economist. I just tell stories. But if there’s no choice but to rewrite our economic rules – can we make them tell kinder stories this time?
Can we make the world more just, more human?
Can you even picture that?
Can you imagine something better?
Right now I’ve got space in my schedule to help just a couple businesses craft better COVID-19 messaging. There’s no set service model for this; I could write for you on an ongoing basis or just spend an hour consulting if you need a partner for strategic conversation. Contact me and we’ll cook up a plan to suit your needs. We are all struggling, waiting, hoping – you are not alone.
To see how we’re messaging so far in my small service business, watch this video.
You’ll want to avoid the Stonehenge Problem.
People think writing is putting ideas into words. It’s not.
Writing is using words to find out your ideas are crap – so you keep choosing more and different words and honing those ideas. Writing is trying hard to think your thoughts until you actually uncover what those thoughts are.
Writing is making ideas better.
Then you can put them into words.
This idea-having is a process. With my clients, it’s a dialogue: I ask them questions about what they want or what they mean. We hash it out together. We are writing! We improve and clarify the things they’re trying to say, and then I speak those same things back to them a few days later and they say “that’s it” or “that’s not it” or “actually, I’ve changed my mind.”
We find the right ideas. And then we put them into words.
This takes more time than finding words for bad ideas does. It means talking about strategy before you execute. It means you hire the writer not just for your video’s voiceover, but to help you plan the video’s message too. It means you get an architect, not just a builder.
Yes, refining takes more work.
But it gets you a message that’s refined.
And without that, there’s a chance ALL your company’s communications have a Stonehenge Problem. There’s a risk of paying folks to execute your first idea, the one you sketched onto a napkin. The idea that was 80% there, but still needed just a little more refining.
How to delegate
You want to get shit done, right?
But what if you, personally, don’t have time or talent to do ALL the shit yourself?
I know you don’t. But if you own the football, you can hand it off.
There are only two ways to delegate.
1. Delegate specific actions.
Tell the delegee what actual literal physical action you’d like them to take. Using their bodies. Physically.
I mean this. Write (or say) clear step-by-step instructions, like the ones that came with your Ikea furniture, so that your delegee will know EXACTLY what you want from them.
If you don’t know what actual action they should take with their actual bodies, sorry, you can’t delegate. You’re just not ready.
Figure out the actions first.
And give a deadline.
Don’t say: “Look, a thing I wrote. Thoughts?”
“Thoughts?” is not an action, and you gave no deadline. Shit’s not getting done.
Instead, say: “Take this file, read it and change whatever you don’t like. Please put it in my inbox when you’re done. Do it by Friday.”
That shit’s getting done.
2. Delegate responsibility.
If you don’t know just what actions you’d like them to take and you’re too busy (or too lazy) to decide, you can also hand off responsibility instead of action.
In this case, just tell your delegee the problem you want solved. Then let them solve it any way they want.
That second part is key: If you hand off responsibility, you must hand off authority as well. Don’t separate the two unless you’re going for the Despot of the Year award. Don’t put someone in charge and then not let them be in charge. You’ll crush the personhood right out of them.
Whoever is responsible must also call the shots. If you won’t say just what you want them to do, you must let them decide. No in-betweens.
So delegate authority.
But go ahead and say where that authority begins and ends.
And give a deadline.
Don’t say: “You’re in charge of getting a new printer. No, not that one. No, not that one either. Boy, you’re bad at this!”
Instead, say: “Please suggest which printer we should buy. Don’t buy it yet; just bring me your suggestion so I can approve it or respond to it. I don’t care how you do the research, but I’d love to hear your pick by Friday.”
That shit’s getting done.
How not to delegate
[This post contains several instances of a word that’s sometimes bleeped out on American network television. For a creatively censored version of the same post, check out this Twitter thread instead.]
You want to get shit done, right?
But you won’t – unless you know what shit to do.
And your coworkers are the same way. Your boss, your peers, your direct reports. All of them.
- If they don’t know what shit to do, they won’t do shit. They’ll just procrastinate.
- Or else they will find different shit to work on, probably some shit that’s less important than the shit you wanted them to work on.
That’s why, if you want to get shit done, you have to learn to delegate.
Here is what NOT to do.
1. Don’t delegate what isn’t yours.
To delegate a project, you must have responsibility. That means the outcome of the work is on your head.
To delegate a project, you must also have authority. That means the method for the work is in your hands.
If the work is in your hands and the results are on your head, you own a project. If you own it, you can hand it off.
But if you don’t, you can’t.
A lot of projects get screwed up this way: The boss puts Person A on something, but Person B was on that thing already. The boss was trying to pass a ball he didn’t have. Now we’re all running circles. Shit’s not getting done.
2. Don’t take no answer for an answer.
When you delegate, the one to whom you delegate must say “ok, I’ve got this.” They must understand what you’ve asked and agree to do it.
If you get no response, no understanding, no agreement – then you didn’t delegate.
A lot of projects get screwed up this way as well: Your “delegation” sits there as an unread email at the bottom of somebody’s inbox. You may think you delegated. But shit isn’t getting done.
Your shit’s a football.
The points above are obvious. We get them messed up anyway.
So here’s a handy double-check before you delegate:
- If you don’t have it, then you cannot pass it.
- If you pass it and nobody catches it, you have to pick it up.
For companies to delegate well, everyone must always know who has the ball. Think of your latest project: Who has the responsibility? Who has authority?
Is it you?
Then you can delegate some shit.
Why are we here?
Here’s how nonprofits go: They start out with a mission. Someone wants to make things better, and they’ve got a plan for how to do it. At the very least they’ve figured out the first step.
Poof! You’re an organization now.
And organizations matter – they let lots of people work together, and they form the infrastructure that lets people fight the good fight more efficiently.
With luck, you get that infrastructure built. You get some funding, build a team, a board and partners and community relationships. The work gets done. The good fight’s getting fought. You’re making this world better.
And it all becomes a habit – which is fine. It’s more efficient. Take the grant, distribute funds, buy donuts for the annual meeting. Hash out next year’s calendar. When will the banquet be?
You do what you do. Poof! You’re not just an organization – you’re an institution now.
It’s maybe 5 or 10 or 45 years in, you’re sitting in a meeting, and some honest soul sits up and asks, “Why are we here?”
Oh, yeah. Huh. Why are you here?
You had a mission once – you probably still do, on paper. Can everybody at this table name it? Is it clear to them?
And does it still apply?
And do they actually believe it?
Are you here, all of these years later, to accomplish something meaningful each day? Or are you like those soldiers in the First World War who passed time in the trenches, singing over and over, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here?”
Because they had to be there. You really don’t.
So ask. Take an informal survey of the board; ask folks who work for you. Do they know why you’re here? Can they explain it, quickly and concisely, in a way that makes them want to be here?
Would it change things if they could?
Our institutions must be semper reformanda, always in reform. Self-preservation always swallows up our visions if we don’t keep coming back to them. We trade the good fight for the daily grind.
But you can always rediscover your own mission.
It takes work, and change, and therefore courage. The alternative is worse, though: You keep being here, keep using funds and time and oxygen, with no clear purpose.
You’ll be here because you’re here because you’re here.
Until you’re not.