Productive

Cough, ahem.

Yours truly has been fighting a series of flu-like problems for a month now. Actually, that’s not accurate: my respiratory has been fighting me and I’ve been covering up in a weak imitation of Ali’s Rope-a-Dope.

Except, I’m losing.

When enough was enough I went to see a doctor who said , “you’re sick,” (Western medicine at its peak) and proceeded to tell me all the things I had to do. Without boring you with the details I noted he had a key question: was my cough productive? If you’re unsure about what a productive cough is you can Google it, but I won’t describe it here. Too early in the day, at least in my time zone.

The bottom line is that sometimes coughing has to hurt to be helpful. Various aches and pains and changes exist to send information to us about how we’re faring, and more importantly to our internal systems to change the way the body reacts and adapts to stimuli.

I was thinking about that this morning as I trundled out of bed – this whole notion of something being productive even though it hurts – as it bears a resemblance to our workplaces. Sometimes our best learning experiences hurt.

One of my favorites from the suite of oft-asked interview questions is “tell me about a time when something didn’t go well.”  Of course a skilled interviewer – often an oxymoron – is really interested in knowing what you’ve learned from said experience. It’s a good probing question because periodically people say “nothing ever went wrong” which tells you they’re either completely naïve and don’t know when something is bad, or, they’re foolishly trying to claim they’ve never made a mistake.

You don’t want to work with either one.

Things that don’t go well can be productive or destructive. Change is disruption after all.

Meetings with flared tempers, back-channel communications derailing a project team, leaders losing sight of the bigger picture because of their even bigger ego… all examples of common-place errors and mistakes in the workplace: things that don’t go well. Yet the key is not avoiding problems but in understanding that human exchange is full of conflict that may lead to productive opportunities. I.e., sometimes things that hurt can be good.

With the base foundation of “truth” shifting rapidly every year it’s almost impossible to avoid finding your organization in painful situations with regularity as assumptions we used to hold true are washed away. Business is all about predictable growth and that’s hard to sustain when the environment is rapidly changing. So, a key may be in how resilient your team is. How able it is to respond and react when forecasting doesn’t work. How productive you can be when your organization is in pain.

Sooner or later my body will recover: I’m doing all the right things, Now I find myself contemplating how we handle those disruptions at work when our plans and projects falter and we become ill. Do we fight through it relying on the internal strengths of our teams and teammates?

Or do we fight each other as various challenges force us to adjust and then readjust our thinking and our plans?

Are we productive or destructive?

Sometimes pain helps us learn. Yet if not thoughtful, sometimes pain is just that.

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