An Englishman in Austin – Part 4 – or – Why you MUST get out of your comfort zone.

SXSW4

As I sit here in the airport waiting for my trip back to London, I’m reflecting on these last few days at South by Southwest in Texas. I came here with a number of things to get done – playing our part in a DTI trade delegation, meeting future business partners and getting to know entrepreneurs and small business owners.

I must confess though, that I had another motive. I’d heard that the South by SouthWest festival was THE event to come to hear from amazing visionary people from across many fields and areas of expertise. I can certainly vouch for that, in one day this week I heard from the head of Google’s X programme, the superbly named Dr. Astro Teller, a former NSA technical director turned whistle blower and Sci-Fi visionary Bruce Sterling – along with a host of other people from politics, journalism, technology and the arts.

So was that a day to sit back and relax, to enjoy listening to polished presentations which gave an interesting take on stuff which I already knew? No, it’s been one of the most mentally hard-working days I’ve encountered for a long time: and here’s why.

Here at SXSW, it’s not about incremental learning – about professional development – here, I’ve been hearing from people and about ideas so far outside the sphere of my own experience, that I’ve been finding it difficult to get a mental handle to hang on to – in short it would be easy to sit back and file it all as “stuff that I just don’t get”

But here’s the thing, I came to SXSW so that I WOULD “get” some new ideas, and learn from amazing people, I came to deliberately get outside my comfort zone – something that I try to do in a significant way when I can – and here’s why I commend the idea to you as well:

1: Develop an Enquiring Mind.

When you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you end up questioning everything around you. In the US I always find that out-of-place feeling is heightened – I can understand the words, but not quite understand the language, I’ve watched the culture on TV, but never been close enough to feel it. That sense of not knowing what’s going on, at least for me, gets my mind working in a different way – a lot harder for a start.

That switching off of expectations is very hard work, but a great reset to the brain – it’s good to think in a new way.

2: See through a New Perspective

As I head back home, I’m trying to bring with me that fresh perspective. Having gotten into an enquiring frame of mind, it’s great to carry that back home and observe things there afresh. Having spent some time in another culture seeing how they do things differently is a great prompt to re-evaluate those things that we take advantage of back home, and think about how they might be done differently.

3: See the Future

Good ideas travel around the world. In that interface between the local and the global, good ideas from one place or culture are adopted elsewhere. Getting out into other cultures – and particularly seeking those where new ideas might be expected to come from – gives a chance to see the future. For the highly evolved world of digital technology and commerce, south by southwest here in Austin has been an obvious source of those “next big thing ideas”, but with influences from around the world having so much impact on our own culture, any travel is sure to bring a new insight whether it’s to the developing world where disruptive technologies and influences are accelerating development, or in the east where new economic forces are shifting the balance of power.

4: Give your Brain a Workout

Of course seeing the future is one thing, but understanding it and how it relates to us is not at all easy – in fact its very hard work indeed for the brain. Let’s be honest though, our brain needs a good work out once in a while, and using that particular muscle does make it stronger for the future. Out of our own comfort zone we do give our thinking gear a thorough workout and that’s got to be good.

DIY Employees

In recruiting, it’s often tempting to paint a glorious picture of what your small business has to offer to the potential employee, indeed as the employment market hots up – it’s likely you’ll be competing with companies with deeper pockets and swishy benefits.  But in putting together this “gold plated” experience for new members of the team, are you really going to find the right employees to make a real contribution to building your small business.

I advocate an alternative route, and it’s one which doesn’t meet with universal approval.  As a small business, we don’t have a corporate IT department, or facilities department, or a tea trolley for that matter, and so we need to recruit team members who are on the lookout for what needs to be done and who are prepared to get in and do it.  When interviewing candidates, I think it’s important to make it clear that the relaxed environment and informality of a successful small business are only possible if everyone’s willing to muck in and pick up the jobs that need doing.  This isn’t to everyone’s taste of course, and it’s a useful thought process for a “big company” employee to go through before deciding whether they really want to leave the cosy world of the well defined corporate job and venture into the exciting world of small business.

To bring this into the very sharpest focus, and help employees understand that we’re serious when we talk about self starters, our new starters are presented with a checklist on joining the team, and not too far down after the mandatory health and safety briefing comes the line: “Assemble furniture”

Observing what happens next will both tell your team a lot about your ethos as a company and also tell you a lot about your employees.  Whilst your interview process will have tried to screen candidates for how proactive they are, how they respond to new challenges, how able they are to follow unfamiliar instructions, how willing they are to ask for help, how they collaborate etc, the interview process is a notoriously difficult environment in which to assess these characteristics.

After a couple of hours with an Ikea desk, chair and pedestal drawer unit, however, you’ll have an excellent idea which new starters are going to get on well with life in a changing, growing small business.

Add to that the added sense of achievement when the team members walk up to their newly installed workstations, all made by their own hands, and you’ll see why I’ve been an enthusiastic advocate of DIY employees.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the desk at which I’m writing this was put together by yours truly.

Photocopying

Despite the joys of today’s knowledge economy, we still have our off days don’t we, the days when we aren’t firing on all cylinders.

Back in the industrial age, we might slow down a bit at doing mechanical tasks, fetch a little more slowly and carry a little less, and that would be OK, we’d still be contributing valuable labour to the business.

But today when our work isn’t physical, and doesn’t involve creating widgets, what can we do on an off day?  A day when we’re feeling under the weather and not able to concentrate can be a real problem – in can wipe out any value that we might achieve – unless…

David Allen’s GTD (Getting things done) says that in the information economy, you need to be able to switch tasks fast and respond to change, if you find yourself having to think about what to do next, given a certain amount of time in a certain place then you will waste way too much time, you need to have “already thought” and move straight to the next thing that suits the circumstance.

It’s easy to focus on high value, big ticket items, but on days like today (yes, I am suffering with a summer cold and feeling a bit miserable) once again, if we’ve “already thought” about something that needs to be done that’s not too mentally taxing but requires care and a fair chunk of time, and the day can still be a useful one.

My wife calls these “photocopying days”, and whilst even the photocopier mechanical whirr is somewhat a thing of the past in my office, the scanner has been getting a workout today as I catch up on admin and filing.  It means today wasn’t a write-off, and I can begin tomorrow with a little more clear space in my brain.

Now to find that seventh box of tissues…

Character

So much of the time in business we feel the need to try and be the perfect team-mate, the perfect employee, the perfect boss.  But of course that’s not very achievable.  Is it better to be a character – to be remarkable and inspiring to others even with (because of) our flaws?

Yesterday I had the great honour of sharing some thoughts at hubbub’s third birthday party and I realised that the key characters in that team were indeed inspiring and remarkable and bore a striking resemblance to their alter-egos (even moreso than the physical resemblance which is shown below).

How much fun, and how rewarding is it to identify with remarkable characters as a way to help us lead others to great things?

Independence Day

“It must be great to be your own boss you can just… [insert flight of fancy]”

Over many years of running my own business, it’s been one of the most common things people have said when they find out that I decided to set up on my own.

Of course in a way they’re right.  As our cousins across the pond know, and are celebrating today, there are many reasons why shaking off the mantle of “having someone telling you what to do” can be a welcome relief, and bring a great sense of freedom.

But every entrepreneur needs to know that the downside of not having anyone to tell you what to do is … well … there’s no-one there to tell you what to do.   And that freedom, can be the freedom to get things very wrong indeed.

Of course, having a boss isn’t really that different from running your own show: whilst there’s no “one” person there telling you want to do, your responsibilities and opportunities are right there for you to see: Which sales lead to call?  No-one to ask about that, so it’s your responsibility to decide.  Which project needs your attention most urgently?  No-one to assess and determine that but you.  Which team member most needs your time and care? Only you can figure that out.

So does not having a boss simply mean that you’re more exposed to all those asks, all those responsibilities?  Why take that on if there’s the opportunity to line up a “boss” to sort through the “to do” list for you and tidy things up?

For me it comes down to how I see the world.  I am responsible for deciding what’s important – what I care about – what I’ll do next and what will be left un-done.  I always value the input of others, but I’m responsible for my life, so I don’t need a boss to make those decisions for me.

If you run your own business, perhaps you feel the same way?