Embrace the Dark Side

Went to see the new Star Wars flick last weekend, and my favorite sub-plot had to do with the symbiotic interplay of the dark and light sides of the Force.

We see the same symbiosis in business, wherein it is important that our focus on the foreground items with which we deal directly each day doesn’t blind us to the background upon which those appear. The foreground and background work together in order to create a total picture. Without the background — the negative space within which that foreground is presented — the message can be completely indecipherable.

It takes a night to make it dawn | And it takes a day to make you yawn brother | And it takes some old to make you young | It takes some cold to know the sun | It takes the one to have the other
— Jason Mraz, “Life is Wonderful”

The Big Dog Exercise

Here is a little allegorical exercise I have been using for many years in my NYU seminars, as well as for training the project managers, program managers, business analysts, and quality assurance engineers on my teams.

FIRST, I write the following sentence on the whiteboard:

Next, I ask the class to tell me what is happening, there. Normally, the answers come very quickly, describing the size of the dog. I keep prodding, until someone points out that the words are telling us about the size of the dog. Bingo.

And here is where the trouble begins. “Are you sure?” I ask. “Is it the words that are telling you about the dog?”

“Well,” comes the reply, “the words are made of letters. So, on some level, I guess it’s the letters that are providing the information about the dog. Based on how they are organized.”

“I’ll buy that.” I reply. “Anything besides the letters?”

Blank stares from the room.

Then I get sassy, erase the sentence and rewrite it as:

“What about now?”

“Well,” replies that intrepid student from the front row [or the truculent one from in back], “you took the spaces out from between the words. So, it’s harder to read. But I can still tell what’s going on.”

“Fair enough. Does that tell you anything deeper about the previous statement, that it was the letters, aggregated into words, that tell the story?”

“Sure. The spaces matter, too.”

“A lot, or a little?”

“A little, because I can still tell what’s up with the dog.”

Cool. So I erase again and hit ’em with this:

“What have we got, now?”

“Nothing.”

“Agreed. Why?”

“Because it’s all a jumble!”

“So, based on your earlier statements about the spaces mattering, but just a little bit, what do you think now?”

“I think this class sucks”

Well, I totally deserved that. It’s a dirty trick, after all. But an illustrative one. At this point the conversation turns to a recognition that while the letters [ symbols] are clutch in communicating the message of the sentence, the underlying, invisible syntax plays just as pivotal a role. Without the shared understanding of rules and structure that the syntax provides, all the symbols in the language can’t convey a message with any consistency. The syntax operates in the background, quietly providing the structure against which the foreground symbols can be assembled to create meaning.

Like a great Double Act comedy team, the Banana Man falls flat without a Straight Man to foil against. Brooks/ Korman, Belushi/ Aykroyd, Chong/ Cheech, Peele/ Key, McKinnnon/ Jost, and my personal favorites, O’Connor/ Kelly

Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in” Singing in the Rain”

Positive space/negative space. Foreground/background. Symbol/syntax. Comic/straight. Rey/Kylo.

While the foreground gets all the attention, without a strong background to provide necessary contrast, whether that takes the form of linguistic syntax, a deadpan facial expression, or the gray background that makes a red lightsaber pop off the screen, the message becomes weak or indecipherable.

Business Context

That’s a cute trinket, but where might it manifest itself actionably in business? EVERYWHERE. The point of the exercise is, when troubleshooting, to not become so focused on the foreground that you forget to look just as critically at the negative space upon which it appears. Let’s check out a few examples:

In the digital technology business, it is the highly specialized designers and developers who own the spotlight. Justifiably, since they are building the products that actually find their way to market and generate revenue. But it is the project and program managers who create the structure within which those specialist resources take their star turn. Without that structure, the initiative is as likely to collapse in upon them due to external constraints, pressures, and noise as to remain the smooth runway necessary for them to execute their work.

In data-driven businesses, we focus heavily on established KPIs as indicators of our progress and success. This is important, as those KPIs provide us with a manageable set of variables around which to organize our work [SEE ALSO: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/spoonful-sugar-helps-analytics-go-down-drew-harteveld/]. When real-world performance begins to diverge from our KPIs, we tend to hammer on the tools/processes that generate those measures, fighting to bend them back into shape. Occasionally though, it isn’t the measures that are broken, but the market they are intended to measure against. That market may be changing in ways that make the KPIs less valid. Alternatively, the market might remain static, but our own position within it might be in flux. Either way, the root of the problem isn’t in the foreground, it’s in the background.

Whether we are engaging in product development from scratch or troubleshooting something already in place, our focus is invariably on our solutions. This is a trap my own businesses fall into all the time. Build a kick-ass solution, buff/polish, focus on quality, enhance to maximize features, pump-up the marketing budget… And still, NOTHING. In this example, the solution serves as the positive space, and the negative space is represented by the problem that solution has been created to solve. When banging on the solution doesn’t elicit the results we desire, let’s shift to the background, instead, asking some critical questions about those underlying problems. Are those [still] valid? Have we articulated them clearly and specifically enough to allow adequate focus in associated solutioneering? Is there a missing piece that is keeping us from fully understanding what is broken before we rush for a fix?

This is LinkedIn, right? So, let’s talk about your job search. You know what an awesome resource you are, as does your dog. So how come you aren’t getting the traction you expect in the marketplace? You keep polishing your materials and honing your pitch, to no avail.

It’s hard not to look in the mirror and conclude that the problem is you.

But hold the phone just a sec. We already established that you are awesome, and fully vetted by your canine companion. So maybe you aren’t the problem, at all. Perhaps it’s the underlying market that’s broken. Maybe it isn’t looking for the role you are currently offering. Or maybe the role remains valid but you have a simple syntactic disconnect between the open recs and the way you describe yourself as a solution to be applied against those. Perhaps your strategy of approaching the market as a lone wolf looking for a traditional gig is just never going to stick, and you should instead join forces with a few key supporting resources in order to create a team-based offering that more closely matches the holistic vision in the minds of those executives with problems to solve and cash to offer. In none of these examples is the problem the you gazing back from the mirror. And understanding this allows you to focus on the negative space instead, in order to adjust your offering to better match the reality that lives in that background.

Embrace the Dark Side

The point here is simple and clear: in our work, especially when things aren’t going as expected, we can’t afford to focus myopically in the foreground. Yes, we need to troubleshoot the code, or examine the calls to action on the page, or reinstall the printer driver. But when that fails, before we double-down on the foreground, let’s drop back and ask some critical questions about the negative space upon which that foreground problem exists. Sometimes, we find that our solution lies there, instead, in the darkness just beyond the edge of the spotlight.

Organizing people, process, and tools for scalable delivery — VP, Digital Operations, Univision Communications, Inc.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on December 20, 2017.

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Drew Harteveld

Drew Harteveld

BUSINESS PROCESS & OPERATIONAL LEADERSHIP; I organize people, process, and tools to create scalable delivery to the market.