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Balance vs Extremism

“We’ll meet on edges soon, said I” – Bob Dylan

It sometimes seems that all organizations and movements are surrounded by powerful magnets pulling them off their centers. The French Revolution, which began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man, quickly devolved into the Reign of Terror. Recently Newsweek published an article by Jacob Weisberg about how Irving Kristol’s intellectual neocon movement of the ’70′s got hijacked by emotional ideologues. A recent WSJ article discussed how the GOP leadership’s strategy to rebuild after 2008 by attracting moderates was overwhelmed by tea party extremists. History is filled with similar examples.

I call it the Than Thou Syndrome. TTS takes many forms: hipper-than-thou, more-committed-than-thou, more-righteous-than-thou…Some members of a group define themselves in terms of one of the group’s core values. “I am more of whatever-we-think-is-important than anyone else.” Then competition kicks in, and it’s a scramble to be the most-est, i.e., the extreme-ist.

My guess is you have experienced something similar if you have worked in a business organization. Maybe it’s taken the form of Function Wars (“Marketing needs to protect the consumer. Finance and Sales just don’t get it.”). Or technological purity (“This is the most cutting-edge way to do it so we’ll just charge more.”). Or commitment to some new program (“Didn’t you get trained in [fill in the blank]? You need to stop doing it that way!”).

I used to have a boss who said we lived on a chronically tippy boat: “Uh oh, we’re leaning too far left, everyone go right! Uh oh, now we’re leaning too far right, everyone go left! Uh oh…”

Sustainability for any ship of commerce is never on the edges. It grows in the center. It’s balanced. It’s ambidextrous. It recognizes that you cannot sacrifice tomorrow for today’s survival, and neither can you ignore today to build tomorrow. You cannot nurture only one of your children. Defense may win Super Bowls, but you won’t survive the season without wise decisions about what resources to allocate to offense.

But neither can you choose the extreme of trying to do everything. The middle way lies in deciding both what to do and what not to do. Priorities must be set and honored. To Do lists aren’t enough; you also need a Don’t Do list.

There is science in building decision-making processes foundationed in rigor. But keeping your company centered is the art of recognizing which of the many competing mouths must be fed.

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2 Responses to “Balance vs Extremism”

  1. Bing Chou says:

    The idea of a Don’t Do List is something that I haven’t thought about in such a concrete way. While conceptually I understand the importance of saying “no” to things that take away focus from our goals, I’ve always had a hard time in practice. I may give the Don’t Do List a try to make it more concrete. Thanks for the insight Mark.

  2. Mark P. Friedman says:

    Bing – always good to see you on the blog!

    Over the years, occasionally reviewing my To Do list and explicitly forcing myself to relinquish something before adding a new project has proven to be a powerful productivity tool. It’s OK not to try to do everything as long as you’re working on the most important things.

    Let me know how it works for you.

    Best wishes

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