Volatility. Uncertainty. Complexity. Ambiguity. Life in the 21st century.
The VUCA acronym was originally developed by the U.S. military to make sense of the post-Cold War multi-polar landscape of interdependent nations and economies. Since the financial crisis of 2008 the term has been co-opted by business leaders to delineate the unpredictability of market trends and forces. But it’s an apt description of all aspects of the world around us, as news headlines daily remind us.
In the music business there has always been volatility and uncertainty, but the advent of digital technology has taken disruption to new extremes. Traditional radio, bricks-and-mortar recording distribution, print advertising, etc. are all in various stages of decay. Disintermediation—the elimination of the middleman—has become a runaway train. (Coming soon, we hope: the ability to buy tickets for major concerts directly from the artist.)
Every now and then I remember a management practice that I discovered years ago playing in rock & roll bands. (You may be unaware that rock groups are incubators for highly sophisticated behavioral development techniques!)
I forgot about this until I came across a terrific new book—An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. In it authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey mention, almost in passing, an important principle of leadership development: “Continuously develop authority downward.” (This book will get a separate post soon to deal with its more important and controversial thesis that "people development" is the whole point of business!)
Developing authority downward is a message I've been preaching for decades, along with its corollary: "Do yourself out of a job." Train and coach others to do what you do, better than you do it! (Of course this doesn't fit every situation, but it should apply to nearly every manager or supervisor in a growing company.) If you get really good at giving your job away, you will almost certainly earn a new job that pays more and provides new ways to grow.
Back in my rock & roll days I spent more than a few late nights in gin mills and honky-tonks, downing beers with world experts on economic policy, foreign relations, and national security issues. Well, they sounded like world experts.
I was always impressed with the certainty and assurance with which these self-ordained authorities offered solutions to every societal problem imaginable. (I also wondered how these barroom denizens found the time to do the exhaustive research upon which their confident pronouncements had to be based.)
Likewise, in the public square today I am struck by the fact that candidates (at least one, anyway) for the highest office in the land can expatiate with total certainty on solutions to decades-old issues—without any apparent education in them.
As Paul Newman said in Cool Hand Luke, "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand." The band Walk Off The Earth seems to know how to do something with nothing.
Business leaders have said forever that a creative team on a tight budget will often out-innovate a team that has all the bucks it needs.
Take the music videos that WOTE effortlessly cranks out every month. The following clip of a popular James Bay song—performed in a bathroom!—shows what they can do on a zero budget. (This certainly raises the bar for singing in the shower.)
Hey, check out this new workplace practice. It involves giving people very direct, negative feedback unsparingly, as mentioned here in a Wall Street Journal article.
Front-stabbing, as it's called, is apparently the reasonable alternative to backstabbing. By this logic, blunt criticism, even of the harsh variety, should be delivered to employees or managers whenever it’s warranted—without any social niceties or face-saving gestures.
Now if we’re talking about the value of honest feedback, who can argue with that? Whether it’s peer to peer or manager to employee, people have to find a way to communicate the truth, especially when there’s a performance problem. And honest communication is doubly needed in an organization that promotes “niceness” at all cost, where no one wants to upset anyone else and mediocre work is tolerated.
But HOW you deliver that honest feedback makes ALL the difference—at least if you’d prefer to not have a resentful or traumatized workforce. It’s not difficult—and it doesn’t take much time—to deliver candid input that will not insult, humiliate, or abuse a coworker. (If that’s not important to you, you can go now and close the door behind you.) If the feedback is skillfully delivered, it will usually be appreciated.