Math you will actually use

"No no no, that's real math. Like actual math you will actually use in the actual real world."

Our big kid is in the back seat and we're in traffic. The kind of traffic where the only answer is to wait it out and slowly inch your way across the city. Along with everyone else.

But the upside is a captive and screen-free kid. The proper conditions to get more than a one-word answer to "how's school?" and "what are you learning this year?"

So we're hearing about middle school math as we chug along. And all the ways the curriculum has vastly improved since we were kids. Our big kid is laughing. Some of the lessons have been modified so much that we no longer know the terminology. And parents not knowing things is hilarious.

Through the snorts of laughter and "I can't believe you don't know that", we explain that even though the terminology has changed, math is math.

At work, we're having a variation of this discussion, too.

Math is math 

Many of the bosses we meet are on the heels of an impossibly long stretch of trying to hold it together. Of pulling out miracle after miracle to keep their team going over the past two years. 

Many of them have just gotten promoted (again). Many have been asked to lead (yet) another team. Or take on a few (several) more direct reports. And all of them are tired. They feel one part proud of the work they've done. One part pleased about the impact they've had. And several parts exhausted.

And it's that last part that they need help with. Or, at least, that last part is why they call us.

If you didn't feel like you had strong management skills coming into the pandemic, this past year at work has only made the need more urgent. More pressing. More desperate. As the needs of your team and your organization have grown more dire, so has the need for shit that works. Both in a pinch and more broadly.

Demand for management tips and tricks is at an all-time high. People looking for any balm that can soothe the dry, chaffed state of leading a team in 2021. And while there are absolutely tips and tricks and techniques that can help, the first one is the most important. And none of the tools work until you let this one in. Here it is. You can't fight math.

Second-shifting in the evenings. Weekend work. Cancelling plans in the rest of your life. Sunday scaries. These are the coping strategies of someone trying to fight math. To kick ass at their job – or even just to it endure – in spite of math.

We have so much empathy for the folks in this trap. We've been in it ourselves. Plenty. But we've also learned that there's a better way to handle it.

When you find yourself in a fight with math, stop.

The experienced executives we talk with have developed a reflex around this. When they inherit a new team their first impulse is to figure out what it will do their management load and how to reduce that. If they're asked to pick up new projects or a new goal, their first question is what they can put down. Fundamentally, structurally, they understand that they can't keep adding on. Something's gotta give.

This is the part where some of you shout at your phone screens at 6:08am Eastern. "Of course an executive can do that - how nice for them. They have a level of job security and autonomy and power in the organization that no one else has. If I did what you're describing here, my ass is on the line."

We get it, and we're not trying to piss you off or to wake up your family. We're not saying that you have to be exactly like those executives anyway. We're saying that their reflex is instructive.

The thing junior leaders get wrong is that they treat the business needs as fixed, and their own capacity as flexible. When the business asks for something, a junior leader says "yes," instinctively. Because every request is an opportunity. An opportunity for visibility, for growth, for (ahem) Executive Face Time. When you're in this headspace, opportunity feels like a scarce resource. You have to say yes to everything that knocks on your door because you're not sure it'll come around again. You say yes even if you're already underwater.

The thing solid executives know is that most of the time, business needs are flexible, and your own capacity is fixed. That opportunity is less scarce than your ability to effectively seize it. And that saying yes to too many things means fucking most of them up. You have a number of hours in the day or week that you can give great work to. Past that point, your work gets shitty in a hurry. Past that point, you fall into the anxiety, self-doubt, and racing to catch up. Past that point you're fighting math.

Yes and also no

Most people, including your own boss, your CEO, your board, don't show up at work wanting to kneecap their team or burn out their people. But that doesn't mean that they have been suitably thoughtful about workload or the trade-offs implied by some new request.

Sometimes the right move is to plant your feet and say, "no." Sometimes the demand is so ludicrous that it's not worth grappling with in the first place. But most of the time it's more helpful to treat new work, a new direct report, a new project, as the start of a conversation.

Executive coaches have a question we love for anchoring this conversation. It goes, "If you're saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?" We like it in part because you can hear it, and answer it, in a lot of different ways. But it's particularly good for the way it makes an implicit thing explicit. Because every yes, every yes, is also a no.

A yes to new work is either an explicit no to some existing work, or else it's an implicit no to something else. Balance, maybe. Or boundaries. Or downtime. The power of the question is the reflection it causes as you try to answer it. What are you saying no to, and is that the right trade off? Is there something else you should say no to, instead?

This conversation, about what we'd have to say no to in order to say yes to this, is a powerful one. It can bring in prioritization, hiring, delegation. Workplace culture, team dynamics, and career paths. If you are a boss, bringing this into discussions with your own team when new work comes up is a gift. For them, and for you. It gives you a constructive, priority-focused way to talk about workload instead of just enduring it.

Math isn't a personal failing. If you've got more to do than time in the day to do it, you have options. But the one that won't work is to keep piling on top and hope nothing topples over. Because physics, too, is math.

The whole point is to go from: The shit that falls down is an accident and I have no predictive ability around which things drop. To: I get to decide which things are the most important. Which things must happen. And I can not only predict, but be intentional around which things drop.

You don't need a coach to ask you this question. You can build this muscle any time something new shows up. Whether it's a work thing or a non work thing. And you can start today.

If you're saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
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And speaking of not fighting math...

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