June 3, 2005
My Grandma Hazel has a Yiddish saying that she uses to describe me from time to time — "gor oder gornisht" — which means "all or nothing." My Dad has a Greek saying that he uses to describe me from time to time — "meden agan" — which means "everything in moderation." These two approaches to life seem diametrically opposed. Which is right?
Being a successful entrepreneur requires BOTH approaches, each at different times, and more important, the ability to shift gears between the two and be clear about the shift to yourself and to others.
There are periods of time when you need to be in "all or nothing mode." Push extremes. Demand more from your team. Drop lots of the items on your to-do list and grow a singular focus on The One Big Thing. Don’t go for a light jog — train for a marathon.
Then there are periods of time when you’re in execution mode. The path has been defined. Things are working. Put the "life" back in your "work-life" balance. A marathon? Are you nuts? Just run 3 miles a day and stay in shape.
You — and your organization — need to be able to shift gears between the two modes. An organization that never goes through extreme periods is in grave danger of stagnating. No one in an exciting company ever has "business as usual" emblazoned on their to-do list 365 days a year. Organizations tend to take their biggest leaps forward when there’s an extreme situation, an all-hands on deck, a crisis.
But an organization that ONLY knows how to exist in crisis mode can be miserable. Trust me, I’ve worked in one before. There’s a shiny new object every week that everyone has to drop everything to pursue. Everything gets started, but nothing gets finished. People are frustrated. They burn out.
Companies and people (most mortals, anywway) have to go through periods of time where they thrive on the routine and celebrate their everyday achievements.
The trick to getting this duality right is to make sure you are clear to yourself, and when necessary to others, about when you’re shifting gears. For yourself: when you go into "gor oder gornisht" mode, clear that calendar and set aside the time to do the job right. For others: don’t make them guess where you’re coming from. If you’re hitting an extreme patch, let them know by meeting or email/memo. And make sure you’re fair to them as well. If you’re forcing people in the organization to focus on The One Big Thing, make sure you recognize the changes that forces in their goals, their deliverables, and their external commitments and give them the flexibility they need to succeed. Going back into "meden agan" mode is easier, but still requires a note of closure to your team, celebrating the success of the big push.
Fortunately, I can tell both Dad or Grandma that they’re right (how would I ever pick?). I just hope the ancient Greek philosophers and bubbies everywhere aren’t spinning in their graves over the mixing of metaphors.