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"Get busy living or get busy dying."

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

My sister called me the other day telling me the startup she has been working at the last few months is about to go under.  The conversation reminded me of a theme I had been pondering the last couple of weeks. Contradictory to Andy Dufresne's quote in Shawshank Redemption that one must get busy either living OR dying, work and life is a bit more of a complicated proposition of both. 

The Dead Sea is a great example of this phenomena. The Dead Sea, a salt water lake, has high concentrations of sodium chloride and mineral salts used for various restorative health and spa treatments. Yet, the Dead Sea is dying and is expected to fall into a sinkhole by the year 2050. 

At this current juncture of my life, I happen to be working for an industry, practicing my faith, and experiencing both parental and nuclear family changes that some could argue are all dying. Because we are always in relationship with the systems that surround us, I was becoming victim to the psychological impacts of this interdependency. Pulling from my experience in the disciplines of change management, leadership, and business analytics, I offer these suggestions for both individuals and organizations that are currently living within a dying system. 

CIRCUMVENT any quick fixes to solve the problem. 

In 2011, Spencer Tunick wanted to bring awareness to the eventual loss of the Dead Sea. He photographed over 1100 nude individuals floating within its waters. In 2016, he repeated this stunt electing to use only 15 nude individuals instead. Both photographs did little to solve the actual problem of stopping the Dead Sea from dying. We do similar activities in our individual and organizational systems, looking for a quick fix or feel good measure that does not address the core problem. 

CANCEL losing ventures.

Many years ago, I worked on a consulting project to implement a new system. We were there for two years even though it was evident after one year the project was never going to be successful. Organizational leaders must have the courage to kill initiatives and products, fire individuals quickly if they are not a fit, and eliminate whole divisions of an organization if data indicators such as financials say an outcome of death is inevitable. This is often difficult for leaders to do as outlined in the Harvard Business Review article: Knowing When to Pull the Plug

A Christian worldview indicates that death is not an end but a transformation to something new. In Greek mythology, the Phoenix is reborn out of the ashes of its predecessor. It is difficult to know when to accept an inevitable end but getting data and using it to see past our biases helps the decision become clearer. 

CHANGE the boundaries of your individual and organizational systems. 

A transformation can begin by changing the boundaries of your current system and building new relationships with others. Individuals do this by joining new groups. Organizations need to see past the internal capabilities of its organizational chart and build strategic relationships with others. This often requires breaking the rules and going against what is standard protocol. I tell my strategic planning students that if you are working for an organization and no one has looked at you funny or called you crazy recently, you aren't being a strategic leader.

Western Union, Polaroid, American Express, and many other organizations have learned how to transform themselves from irrelevant 20th century business into relevant organizations for the 21st century. They have done this by focusing their resources on long-term solutions vs. quick fixes, eliminating what others might see as their core business, and changing the boundaries or rules upon which decisions are made. 

It's never too late to hope

While we may like to ignore it, we are a function of our relationship with the systems and structures with which we interrelate. In the movie, Shawkshank Redemption, Brooks finds he has become so dependent on the system (e.g., prison) which guided his life for decades, that when he finally escaped it, he could not function, so he killed himself. We see the same type of paralysis when Red (Morgan Freeman) finally gets parole and he admits he cannot relieve himself without asking for permission first. Theory without action is futile and listening to our bodies, whether individual or organizational, gives us important clues for when the systems and structures around us are limiting us or helping us to grow.  

Andy tells us to "get busy living or get busy dying". It really isn't an either / or proposition because when positioned correctly, both living and dying can give us hope. Hope, as Andy tells us, "is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

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