Adapt, Improvise, Overcome

There’s a small chain of Mexican-ish restaurants in my area that I’ve been a devout patron of since we moved here. They do a brisk carry-out business, especially for their breakfast burritos (served all day). For the last 20 years, as they’ve opened new locations following the suburban sprawl, I’ve wished they would build drive-throughs. Families and blue-collar contractors are a big customer demographic for them, and both would happily pull their vans up to a window to order bags of food.

Within the last 2 months, all of their locations sprouted drive-through options.

These are not fancy – they are made out of orange cones, yellow CAUTION tape, and portable event tents, and take up the parking spaces that are not being used due to the lockdown. A couple of the locations have 2 lanes – one for cars and one for trucks – showing that they’ve noticed who shows up for breakfast and lunch runs. It’s a brilliant low-cost adaptation that has allowed them to stay in business, which means that the people who work there have been able to stay employed. We are on a first-name basis with several of the staff so I know how deeply scared they were back when the lockdown started.

Another local chain, this one with a franchise model, has adapted in a different way. They’ve always had a dining room with booths in front and a pool hall/bar in back. The location near us pulled out all the booths, which gives them enough space to locate pool tables and video gambling machines six feet apart. Food is carry-out or delivery, and for the first couple weeks they included a free roll of toilet paper with your order. Genius!

Wrapped roll of toilet paper featuring a sticker with the restaurant's logo that reads "I survived Covid-19 and all I got was this lousy roll of toilet paper."

Here in the US, toilet paper remains a problem because the supply chain is split into “at home” and “not at home” and apparently can’t be easily changed. This means that there is now a surplus of TP for the “not at home” locations but a shortage in the store for “at home” customers.

While the production part of the industry can’t seem to adapt with any sort of speed, the distribution and customer end has. A distributor for the “not at home” customers in New Mexico immediately saw what the problem was and started selling bulk packages of 96 rolls directly to people, first-come-first-serve, $35 cash per package.

The lines of cars were 3 miles long.

(Also, $35 for 96 rolls should tell you the kind of markup that those cute cartoon bears add to your grocery bill.)

Our local restaurant no longer includes the free roll, but you can buy rolls of TP from them, as well as latex gloves and paper towels – all the stuff from large industries that haven’t been able to innovate or adapt to the new demand situation.

All over the world, at almost every level of the economy, I’m seeing the kind of user-focused, need-driven innovation that has been the hallmark of humanity. It’s amazing and impressive.

And it makes the inability of large organizations, such as giant corporations, large government agencies, and even governments themselves, to adapt…that much more obvious.

Too Big to Succeed

There are a whole host of reasons why large organizations don’t — can’t — innovate and adapt. I teach a course on it, even. Whether it’s due to poorly designed incentive structures or too much focus on quarterly profits for shareholders, or both, organizations stagnate.

Part of that is “the competency trap.” American big business and America as a nation has fallen into this. Part of it is size: When the organization gets too large and too comfy, the people in it care more about their rank inside the organization than they do about the overall success of it (“stake” vs. “rank” from Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall).

I bet that before Covid-19, the staff at my favorite restaurant were engaged in squabbles about who got to work which shift and how tips were split. When the restaurant had to lay off half the staff and figure out how to not die, everyone pivoted to caring about that and helped design the drive-through concept and other solutions.

America has been struggling since the 1980s. Our success has been based on being the most innovative country, leading the world in creative output (to quote Neal Stephenson: “movies, music, and microcode.”). We invent the things that other people buy and copy…but we’ve been stalling out as our organizations become “too big to fail” and all effort is targeted to shareholder profit. The only place we consistently see innovation is in software tech, and most of that is false innovation: it doesn’t meet a need or add value. At best, Silicon Valley creates something and then cynically convinces people that it’s valuable; at worst, they use persuasive design to hijack our limbic systems and create the need.

This has real, measurable effects. It’s killing us.

When people are not able to improve their conditions, it has a psychological and sometimes physiological effect on them, and sometimes that results in their deaths. Direct suicide and indirect suicide (alcohol and drug use, risky behavior) resulting from this are known as “deaths of despair.” A recent study on the increasing rate of deaths of despair in the US projected a possible 75,000 deaths in 2020, which was on par with deaths from Covid-19 at that point. We’ve blown past 100K Covid-19 deaths now, but we’re also in a recession, which will lead to more deaths of despair.

Unless.

Unless we realize that our overly large, overly resourced organizations are not going to fix everything. They can’t. They are too big to succeed.

Act Where You Can

But smaller groups of people, working together against a shared goal, can innovate. This pandemic has shown us that. All our best and biggest achievements have been many smaller groups doing innovation at their scale, and then those coming together in some organized fashion to make the change. This became a bumper sticker: Think Globally, Act Locally. That’s easy to remember, and is in fact true.

Organize!

We also tend to think that we need an organizer, a single leader, a conductor. For some things, maybe. But collective actions in nature are not conducted by an outside intelligence; every member of the swarm, flock, or school makes just three decisions: separation, alignment, and cohesion. They want to steer to avoid crowding or hitting their friends, they want to move in the same direction as their neighbors, and they want to move toward the center of the group.

I attended a couple of the Black Lives Matter protests over the last week, and the protesters followed pretty much these same rules, but with the additions of empathy, support, and feedback. Protesters were there because they are able to empathize with those who are at risk. They provided water, snacks, masks, hand sanitizer, sign language translation, medical help, and directions to each other, and they told each other how the actions of the other affected them (mostly saying thanks).

You don’t need someone else to say “hey, if you want to stay in business during quarantine, figure out a way to build a drive-through.” You and your flockmates, who all want to move in the direction of “not losing our jobs,” can self-organize. It doesn’t have to be a big deal – get with neighbors to take the kids on a “neighborhood safari,” team up to make masks for folks, figure out how your office team can work better remotely. You’ve probably already done a LOT of improvising, pivoting, and adapting already! As you get more practice, you’ll increase your ability and capability, and you can expand your area of impact. See the unmet needs and tackle them.

This is harder than just showing up to a job and then doing what your inbox says, but it’s better for you. At the very least it increases your resiliency. (Resiliency is another thing that works on the individual and small level, but does not scale to large organizations; for something like an economy or a political model to be resilient it has to be designed that way and maintained that way by resilient people.)

Radical Everyday Bravery

I had drafted this post up to this point, and didn’t know how to finish it, and then my country decided that experiencing a pandemic, an economic depression, and multiple hard core agitprop campaigns was kinda boring, so we added civil rights protests. (These are not, by the way, unrelated; the increasing stressors from the economy and disinformation had Americans right on the edge. The added fear from the pandemic, the creation of an artificial juxtaposition of public health and economy, and more time on social media to soak in more emotional stimuli meant that people were DONE. Protesting also became cheaper because it’s not like we were missing work to do it, so first we got the anti-shutdown protests and then Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were killed in quick succession and, well, you’ve seen the news.)

Anyway.

As I was trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to, about just taking action yourself for what you believe in, for being the change you want to see in the world, I happened to listen to the episode “Everyday Acts of Bravery” from the Accidental Creative podcast by Todd Henry, and that EUREKA! flash hit me. I encourage you to listen to the episodes on bravery, but I want to share my notes with you in the hope that you will be inspired to stop waiting for a hero and engage in a little creative bravery. The world needs it.

Bravery, here, is “right action at the potential expense of your own comfort.” Yes, you may find it stressy or scary or even actually painful to do the right thing, but that’s The Wedge, the way you increase your resilience. (Cowardice is “self-protection at the expense of right action.” We have too much of that in the world, so let’s not add more.)

Creative bravery, as in bravery to create something better, or “radical everyday bravery,” needs a certain environment, one of both high agency and high optimism. A lot of people aren’t familiar with this use of the word agency: if you have agency it means that you have options for how you engage with the world, and there is a possibility that your actions will matter. (If you don’t feel either of those things, you despair, which can lead to “deaths of despair,” so it helps the whole system to create an environment where good people feel they have agency and feel optimism.) Optimism, of course, means that you believe a better outcome is possible.

I do love a good quad chart, so here are the alternative environments. They pretty much all suck, except for high agency and optimism.

My friends at the local restaurant felt they had agency to make their parking lot into a drive-thru, and they felt optimistic that that would result in a better outcome for them. The folks at the other place decided they had the agency to include some of their toilet paper reserves in carry-out orders, and were optimistic about the results. Those were both brave choices, as was literally removing the table and booths. Not all bravery has to be Audie Murphy level.

In fact, Mr. Henry enumerates some elements of what bravery is and isn’t, and I really love this list:

  • Bravery is doing the right thing, as best we know it, even when it’s uncomfortable.
  • It’s a choice, not a trait.
  • It’s always empathic. Bravery is always about the other, not about the self. It looks outward when deciding what to do. Cowards look inwards.
  • It’s action in spite of fear. It’s not the lack of fear (that’s just dumb). It’s making the value exchange that the outcome will be worth it, the juice will be worth the squeeze.
  • It’s a willingness to fail in pursuit of what matters.
  • Bravery is not stupid risk – that’s bravado or recklessness, and it’s why we have different words for it. It happens when the cost of inaction is worse.
  • Nor is it impulsive. It’s realistically optimistic, born out of a commitment to a better future.
  • It’s not bluster. You might not get credit, or people might misunderstand what you are doing. They might not like it.
  • It is not anonymous or remote. You have to have skin in the game. A strongly worded tweet is not brave.
  • Most of all, bravery is not for the select few. Opportunities abound to be brave.

I have been so impressed and delighted with all the small acts of bravery I’ve seen since the pandemic started. People are building their resilience by figuring out how to adapt and move forward in the new environment. They are not giving up. They may not get it right the first time, but they are working together to figure it out, and that’s what counts.

This, these small local acts of empathy and optimism, this everyday bravery…this is how we create the new normal, together.

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