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A Magic Dwells in Imperfection

Welcome to another episode of “Mediocrity and Madness”, my podcast about our daily balancing act between aspiration and reality at our workplace, about the ever widening chasm between talk and truth! Slowly climbing out of my Corona-solitude-pit, I felt like yet again doing an English version after quite a while. No specific reason. Just felt like it. And German as I am, the first thing I have to do is to apologize for my humble command of English!

Collectively climbing out of that coronesque pit, we slowly begin to muse about the positive things, we might preserve from these past months, assuming – rightly or wrongly – that the worst is behind us. You everywhere read about “new work”, less commute, more videoconferencing, reducing our carbon footprint, boosted digitization in schools … . All in all: a better world.

Kreuzungsfreie Laufwege

Well, I said “muse”, because I am quite skeptical about whether we are really going to preserve anything. Anything but “kreuzungsfreie Laufwege” that is. I struggle with translating “kreuzungsfreie Laufwege”, but I am sure, there is a proper English equivalent. For all other things the saying applies: old habits die hard! Thus, expect to spend time in meeting rooms and commuter trains again rather sooner than later.

Or prove the skeptic wrong!

Regardless, this shouldn’t keep us off from savouring some of the better things, we experience or experienced throughout this time so we might at least preserve some increments for the time to come. Last time and in German, I mused about the opportunity for “contemplation” in its sense of profound thinking and reflection.

Today, I am thinking of another hidden beauty, “The Beauty of Imperfection”.

The idea of that beauty was already on my mind, but it rained out a few days ago on two parallel events. The one was a LinkedIn post from Tony White, Global Head of Allianz Unversity and a corresponding one from Amir Haramaty about a digital leadership townhall that apparently suffered from significant technical problems. The other event was a videoconference I had quite at the same time with a client. That conference – you guess right – suffered from serious technical problems, too.

Don't blame the messenger

The other communality and the true point is: both events have worked out well nevertheless. Well, I only know that for a fact for my own conference. I have to trust Tony and Amir with their one, but I have all the reason to do so. Put that into contrast to some other experiences I had in the past. You might have had, too. More than once I have seen senior managers getting angry when their video (or telephone) conference didn’t work straightaway. More than once I have pitied that poor technician who fell victim to that wrath … or maybe even worse: to that manager’s PA’s wrath. Occasionally I have been on the receiving end of some discontent myself.

How different though it is if you sit in your Corona induced home office, without staff around you and hardly anyone to blame but yourself. The reasons for a VC not working in this setting are plenty. Your WiFi connection might be weak and unfortunately you hadn’t planned your home office  featuring a cable connection, you’re living in an area where bandwidth is generally low, your kids just started streaming videos and playing CS GO in parallel to your call … or – worst of all – your command of that video conferencing software isn’t that good after all. Add to this the fact that the power gradient between you and your local electrician is by far not as steep as the one between you and that poor company technician, then there is only one person left to be blamed … .

Warning: don’t even think of trying to blame your spouse!

The point is not that all of us have to become experts in network technology. We don’t. The point is that if there is nobody else to blame or some other resource to draw on, you better relax and cope with what you have. That’s what the virus might teach us. Well, bear in mind that I actually don’t believe, it will, but it might nevertheless.

Grainy pictures

It might teach us being at ease with some imperfections, with grainy pictures of our videoconference partners, with juddery cursor movements in that shared presentation, with slides that have to be described instead of shown because they don’t view on our colleagues’ screen, with some participant saying “I am going to drop out and re-connect, maybe it works then”, or with that kid jumping on one’s lap and crying “when are you done, daddy?”.

We might learn that all of this not necessarily yields lesser results or slows down anything or has to be embarrassing. On the contrary. Sometimes these very imperfections save time. Yes, they actually save time by eliminating waste of time on unimportant topics. Sometimes these very imperfections foster dialogue and depth, for example because it is actually hard to make a weak argument orally and via a remote connection, whilst putting nonsense on a slide is pretty easy … and still convincing. And sometimes these very imperfections are huge trust-builders. Doing without guard and entourage can be the very definition of trust.

Here’s another example.

Authenticity beats everything

During a project at the height of the Corona lockdown, we asked very senior executives to shoot some videos about some subject matters as well as about leadership as such. These videos were supposed to be shared with quite a broad audience inside their company. The usual, not-in-lockdown process for such a thing is: You ask the EA, she or he aligns with the executive, the PA gets involved. You book a camera team and appoint half a day between the executive and that camera team. Scripts get written, vetted and re-written. When the day comes, the team assembles, an imposing set is chosen, someone does a bit of a makeup job, the executives reads the script from a tele-prompter or from some cardboards someone is holding up. And so on. You get the gist.

The in-lockdown-process is as follows. You still reach out to the EA/PA. The executive commits to the task. You send her or him a few instructions about desired content and how to shoot the video. She or he contemplates what they want to say. They put up their computer or their phone in their home office, living room or kitchen and record a few versions of their message so you can play a bit in post-production.

That’s exactly what happened.

The results are stunning! From a technical point of view, the videos might not be at the cutting edge movie quality a professional team would have produced, but it is quite impressive what you can do with a higher end smartphone. Sometimes camera angles could be improved and eyes might wander around a bit, but that doesn’t matter. Some people are naturals, some are a bit outside their comfort zone, but that doesn’t matter. Some of the videos got longer than expected, but that doesn’t matter. All of that doesn’t matter at all, because all these videos are invaluable in one respect: authenticity.

Un-cut

Authenticity in two ways: First, authenticity of content; -- the content isn’t vetted and softened through various stages, forth and back. It is not edited and cut. It has not been run by every possible stakeholder from technical experts to the communication department. It is exactly what this senior person wants to say and how she feels like saying it. It might be less polished, but it definitely gives more insights.

Second, authenticity of personality. Sitting at our kitchen table or standing up in front of our book shelve, most of us are actually a bit different from what we are at our office desk or in the corporate meeting room. Not only do we share quite a bit of our private environment, we also behave differently in that environment. As I said, the results can only be described as beautiful.

Guards down

This is another beauty of imperfection. We’re used to feign perfection, invulnerability, impregnable strength. Yet given the fact that hardly anyone of us can honestly claim these qualities – well, at least I can’t –, feigning them takes away significant strength personality-wise. Feigning superhuman strengths comes with the loss of authenticity; -- and trust. Plus: in the process, information, knowledge, insights are filtered and leveraged. Divide et impera! Divide and conquer. Not really the most productive way these days, regardless of the virus.

Besides, feigning superhuman strength is quite arduous. You permanently have to act above your actual capabilities. If you’re not Superman or Superwoman, that is. Back home you can either maintain that veneer. That’s what some people call “quality time”. Or you can drop the guard, which might result in weekend migraine or burn-out symptoms, depending on the width of the gap between your inside and your outside.

Our Corona retreat now eliminates that stretch. There’s not much sense in feigning superpowers via Zoom. Sitting at the table with your family for breakfast, lunch and dinner makes feigning Ironman look at least a little inadequate. The result may feel like cold turkey. First, it gets really bad, then it might become gradually better.

Risk of relaps

Well, as I said in the beginning, I wouldn’t expect the treatment to be sustainable. Like with any addiction, the risk of a relapse is always huge. And let’s not forget, being perceived as a superhero and being treated like a superhero can feel extremely good. If you’re not Deadpool, that is.

Before getting too much engulfed into the idea of beautiful imperfection though, a word of caution is required. Don’t confuse the kinds of imperfection I so much praised above with its ugly siblings: sloppiness, laziness, incompetence! These might create some sort of authenticity, too, but hardly one to being praised. Sloppy spelling, mails without salutation or punctuation marks, showing up unprepared at meetings, not delivering as promised, shallow reasoning … . These are undoubtedly serious imperfections. Do they bear any kind of beauty? I doubt it.

Achilles & Co

Anyway, leaving these legions of ugly imperfections aside for a moment, the point is: being imperfect does not necessarily make us weak, it can actually make us stronger. Only imperfections make the real hero. From Achilles to the Dark Knight or Wonder Woman: no hero would qualify as such without his or her weaknesses, doubts or even dark sides. Well, some other time and some other place, I argue that we actually do not need another hero, so please do not take that hero-thing too literally. It’s just that if even these heroes of ancient and modern times would be incomplete without their imperfections, how wouldn’t we mere mortals?

It’s actually quite simple: A magic dwells in imperfection. At least in some.

These in many other respects so strange times might have provided us with an opportunity to glimpse a bit of that magic. Something to preserve after all.

This was the latest edition of “Mediocrity and Madness”, my podcast about our daily balancing act between aspiration and reality at our workplace, about the ever widening chasm between talk and truth!

Thank you for listening! Stay healthy! Value your imperfections … and the ones of others! If you liked this podcast, feel free to recommend it to a friend.

Until next time …

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