Obscurity

We’ve all been there. We’ve all shown up to a new place where no one knows us. They don’t even care to get to know you or what you have to offer.


Now the question is “what do you do?” Should you stay in obscurity? Do you create a platform for yourself?


Living in obscurity is rough. It’s a tricky part of life. No one wants to live in obscurity. I don’t know a single adult who would wish to relive their middle school years. However, some of us find ourselves living in obscurity anyway.


While it’s difficult, there can be beauty in obscurity. (Enter the motivational posters of “The journey is the reward”). Journeying through obscurity is not for the faint at heart though.


Over my 38 years, I can reflect and see seasons of nothing but obscurity. So the question is, is obscurity something everyone HAS to go through and endure? If so, what are the best practices to journey through the darkness well?


In 2007, I started a new job in a new state. When I arrived at my new job, I was ushered into a training lab. I went through my orientation. During my week of orientation, I wasn’t even allowed to see the area of the production plant where I’d be working. It was strange, for sure. When I arrived, the people I would be working with didn’t care that I was there. Several of them reminded me many times that ‘they had been doing the job longer than I’d been alive.’


I had positional leadership. My job was a leadership role for the team. Most of my team didn’t care about my title. I foolishly believed that my title would open the gates of influence and leadership. I thought that I would give instructions and these instructions would magically be followed.


That did not happen.


I had to make a decision early on in this job. I could put my hours in and appear to be a leader and collect my paycheck and never gain leadership influence or, I could go through the long awkward path of obscurity to gain influence.


It’s possible to create a platform of influence without selling out.


Following are the lessons I had to learn and relearn in seasons of obscurity. This journey is more like a dance than it is a hike.

3 Things to work on in seasons of obscurity:


1. Focus more on becoming than doing.
A person of character is a rare thing these days. Take responsibility for your actions, words and results. When you screw up, admit it.


If you say you can submit a report by the end of the day, do it.


Your actions should match your words and your words should match your actions. No one admits to being a hypocrite, but we all are. We all struggle at keeping our word.


Excuses may help us feel better about ourselves, but they leave us lacking. It’s tempting to focus on tasks and getting things done. This temptation leads to our business. The business will lead to burn out and cynicism.


Being a person of integrity means to become a whole person. It’s tempting to compartmentalize our lives. We want to think we can become a person of integrity at work without it affecting our personal life.

Compartmentalizing our lives can lead to voids in our lives. We can have the appearance of substance, but in reality, be puffed up without content to support it.


Integrity comes from the Latin word “integer”. Legend has it that clay potters would put an “I” on pots after they went out of the kiln. This was done only if they were to be whole and complete without void.

Become a person without void.


If you say you’ll do something, do it. If you say you won’t do something, don’t.


If you want to take your wife on a date, do it. Plan ahead. Do it. Date your wife. If you don’t someone else will.


Be the person others at work can trust.


2. Clean your desk/workspace each day.
It’s tempting to allow the craziness of your life to keep you from organizing your work area. Don’t let it.


Take 5 minutes each day to clean your crap up. File paperwork. Throw trash away. Leave your area clean, especially if you share a work area.
Schedule time to file emails away as well. Don’t “check your email”.

Checking your email leads to so many other distractions. If possible set times in your daily schedule to ‘file emails’. Filing emails is a push to read, respond to the email and file it away.

How many times have you checked your email and read the email. Then never actually responded or carried out a task listed in an email? As a result, you show up to a meeting and realize you showed up unprepared. You neglected to prepare, which is what the previous email explained. You didn’t bring a report. Submit a requisition request prior to the meeting or inform someone else of the meeting etc.


Organizing your space not only clears your mind and helps reduce clutter. It communicates something about your work ethic and responsibility.
You can’t gain influence quickly. You gain influence and leadership through the long game. Winning the long game requires consistency and responsibility.


3. Turn your focus on getting results.
So, there’s this harsh reality in the workplace. There aren’t participation awards. Mean people called ‘bosses’ do this ridiculous thing like holding others accountable. ‘Bosses’ give paychecks out for an agreed-upon pay. They actually expect results from that so-called work.


In a previous job, I had to attend weekly meetings. In my weekly meetings, my boss would explain our goals as a department. He would also share his expectation in regards to— safety, quality and production ratios.


I would show up week after week reporting how I was trying to motivate my teams to meet these expectations. I would list out all the excuses I could come up with. We had no parts. We didn’t have packaging to put the assembled parts into. It was too hot. Etc.


After a few weeks, I realized this wasn’t gaining any results so I did something different. When we would run out of parts to assemble, I would communicate to the people in the previous process what I needed. I’d ask for an estimated update on when we could expect pieces. I kept a report in my notebook and reported my responses to the issues of why we couldn’t hit our production ratio.


It’s so easy to play the victim role in the workplace. My boss is so mean, clients are unrealistic or the economy is changing, etc.


You don’t control the majority of what happens to you. You do control 100% of how you respond to those events. Focus on how you respond. Your response should be focused on gaining results, not making excuses.

A guy named Todd stopped me after one of our weekly meetings. Todd said very little, but what he said was full of wisdom. He told me that no one cares about how much I try to get results. I won’t get a ribbon for trying. He told me that I should report on what I’m doing to get results.
My area sub-assembled components. Individual stations completed the sub-assembled products for the next process.


I communicated to my team that changes would take place.
I started tracking individual results.


We would hold each other accountable to the expectations. Every Monday, I posted the updated results from the previous week. Each person’s name was listed next to their production ratio. Anyone that didn’t achieve the expectation had to report to the team. They would say what kept them from attaining the expectation. They would also explain what they were going do to meet the expectation in the future.


Things were uncomfortable and awkward on Mondays. Something happened though, Mondays become my favorite day of the week. Our team held each other accountable and knew what results were needed to improve.

Best practices were shared.

We accomplished goals.


Obscurity is challenging for sure. It doesn’t have to be a place where we get lost and forgotten though. These actions have helped me and so many others. I recently asked this question on social media and the input from everyone was so helpful, I had to add a bonus.


Bonus:
Embrace the season and wait. The waiting isn’t passive waiting, it is waiting with anticipation.


Think of sailing a ship. If you’re out at sea and your sails are down and the wind does come, how will you move?


The list above isn’t exhaustive. I do believe it can help you start the process of raising your sails to journey well through obscurity.

Photo by Edgar Guerra on Unsplash

The Middle Phase

In 2015, Heather and I (Marc) were wrestling through what our next step as a family was.  We sensed God leading us away from a church and community that we were extremely comfortable in.  We had friends and support systems. We loved the city and we loved the people. We thought we’d retire there.  However, it became crystal clear that God was moving us away from the comfortable toward an unknown future.

The unknown isn’t bad.  The unknown is simply uncomfortable.  

In August of 2015, we found ourselves driving through Northwest Indiana with a couple of shady characters, Tom and Sarah Cochran.  We stopped at a Merrillville Elementary School, Salk Elementary School. While walking around, I was praying the whole time.

I don’t use this term flippantly.  I sensed God leading us to Northwest Indiana to start a church that unchurched (we define “unchurched” as people who have never gone to church, people who have stopped attending church, find church to be irrelevant or feel like the church has given up on them) people would want to attend.  Herein lies the problem and the challenge. The reality of any business is that any long term success comes when people who don’t currently use your product start using your product.

Business leaders, we must realize we aren’t selling products.  We are selling solutions to problems. You might be selling drill bits today, but once someone discovers a new more efficient way to make holes with accuracy, your drill bit business will be scrambling for business.  As a church leader, I face the same issues.

It’s so tempting to think that our organization is selling or offering a product.  I’d encourage you to think through what problem your organization solves and how you can leverage your organization to solve problems.    

As you start the adventure of exploring what problems your organization solves and offer solutions for them, you might start a new ad campaign or you might discover your products don’t actually offer solutions to any problems, so you revamp your product line.  You might realize that there is a completely different market in the process. You also might discover that your passion isn’t in this field and start a new adventure in a different field. No matter what, there is a rhythm that most likely will take place. There will be a launch phase, a middle phase and a peak phase.  The key to finding lasting success is repeating this process in the right time.

Plenty has been written about the launch and peak phases.  I’ve not come across a lot of material on the middle phase however.  I find myself leading an organization in the early stages of the middle phase.  

As we do this, there is a fun part of the process.  At the launch of any new business or church, there is a lot of energy…then the middle phase hits.  Expenses build up and you spend the same amount of energy and money attempting to generate the same amount of results you accomplished in the launching phase…and It just doesn’t happen.  

You must create more energy.  

Actually, what I have found is that we should create systems instead of products and campaigns.  Systems take a long time, a LONG time to get started. The beautiful thing about systems is that once they are up and running, they will accomplish more results than you ever expected.  

Rich Birch, a seasoned church leader who has served in three innovative culture-shaping churches, uses the example of a flywheel or a merry-go-round.  In the beginning, it seems that nothing is going to the thing moving, but when you stick with it, momentum starts to build up. After a while, momentum takes over and eventually keeping that momentum going isn’t difficult.  

A leader should be strategic and intentional about when to interject to keep the momentum going once the systems are in place and creating momentum.   

This is exactly what happens when the right systems are at work for any organization.  

In the middle phase of the process, the most important and yet most difficult questions to answer are “which systems do you put energy into?”  

I love watching productivity increase while mistakes and process defects decrease.”

You might just have a solution that would solve their problems, but they don’t know you offer it, because of how busy you might be at improving your system.  If you aren’t careful, that focus will be the end of your organization.

We might be working at improving our systems and miss a huge opportunity right in front of us.  In the 90’s, there wasn’t a weekend that I didn’t head to the local Blockbuster Store to rent a movie.  When I was in college in the early 2000’s, I spent most of my Saturdays doing the same thing. I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie rented from Blockbuster.  Why is that?

There was a little start up in 2000 called Netflix.  Founder, Reed Hastings, approached Blockbuster’s CEO John Antioco about purchasing Netflix.  Blockbuster didn’t see the potential in Netflix. They couldn’t see that there would be a new way of watching movies in the near future.  They were focused on improving their systems within Blockbuster and they missed a chance of a lifetime.

Blockbuster filed bankruptcy in 2010 and now Netflix is no longer a fledgling startup.  They have moved well beyond that. They are assessed as a $28 billion company which just happens to be 10 times what Blockbuster was worth!  

The laws of thermodynamics remind us that any system left in isolation will always reduce to zero.  Entropy always increases in an isolated system. The beautiful thing about that law states that any system can come back to life by introducing a new life.  (And all the sales people rejoiced!)

I have a tendency toward creating systems.  I use my time and resources to ensure I have the right systems in place to reduce waste, increase productivity and become efficient.  This simply helps me manage assets we have as an organization. This is a worthy cause. It’s necessary.

I’ve learned, however, that if I am not intentional about ‘selling’ RE.THINK Church (sounds worse than it is), new life will not get introduced into our system.  So, I intentionally put myself in places and environments to tell others about RE.THINK Church.

I refer to these places as my “tribes”.  Author and marketing Jedi master, Seth Godin defines a tribe as a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.  I am heavily involved in the chamber of commerce in our community. I spend a lot of time at luncheons and networking events. I am part of a community within the chamber called, EPIC (Engaging Professionals Inspiring Change).  I love telling the story of RE.THINK. I love connecting with these people.  

I also spend time at a local coffee shop.  Connecting with the baristas and the other regulars helps me tell the story of RE.THINK in our community as well.  I’m actually writing this blog in this coffee shop right now.

Each Wednesday, I have lunch with a group of fifth graders at Merrillville Intermediate School. Here’s a blog I wrote about that experience. As a church, we have adopted MIS to love on. We bring snacks to the teachers throughout the year.  The generosity of the people of RE.THINK is poured into our community in various ways like providing lunches for the teachers and staff of MIS.

I’d encourage you to find opportunities within your community that you could simply tell the story of your organization.   

The best method of telling your story starts with identifying problems people face that your organization offers solutions for.  

As a church, we have identified that people are searching for solutions for such problems as hopelessness, isolation, judgmentalism and loneliness. Many people also feel that they are simply a cog in a machine, living for a paycheck.  The solution we offer people is to engage with RE.THINK Church where a person has the opportunity to find hope, community and purpose.

I do honestly believe that RE.THINK Church is the best church in our area for people who are looking for a safe place to explore their faith.  It is the best church for someone looking for community to connect with and to find purpose in their life beyond a paycheck. I remind myself that RE.THINK Church’s vision is from God.  That vision is to help unchurched people explore their faith and mature in a relationship with Jesus.

We’ve created systems within our church’s organization that offer solutions to these problems.

I bet you believe the same thing about the solutions your organization offers as well.  

Certain days it feels like I am running in circles.  I am continually putting my figurative “salesperson” hat on, taking it off 15 minutes later and putting on my figurative “systems” hat.  

This is the story of most entrepreneurial people.  If we spend all of our time catering to current customers without being aware of people who don’t currently use our services to solve their problems, we might have extremely efficient systems but no customers.  

If we ignore systems, we might have an amazing amount of customers, but it might cost us more money, energy and effort to keep them than it should.  Eventually, our inefficiency will cost us customers.

There is a double-edge sword here.  Seth Godin, reminds us that it costs us more to generate new customers than to get an already existing customer to reengage or buy again.  Remember, we shouldn’t be selling products, we should be offering solutions to people’s already existing problems.

The challenge for us entrepreneurial people is that we must wear both hats of the salesperson and systems person.  How long and often we wear each hat is determined by our current reality.

The middle phase of any venture, in my opinion, is the most difficult to push through.  I believe breakthroughs, innovations and advancements have been missed by millions of people because they gave up in the middle phase of a venture.  The middle phase is where thousands of great dreams, inventions, skill sets and innovations lay because people gave up in the middle of the process.

This is even true for people who aren’t necessarily looking to start a new organization but maybe a new habit or skill set.  There will still be a launch phase, middle phase and a peak. I believe that people might miss the opportunity to develop new skill sets because of the middle phase.  

Let’s use the idea of creating a system to help crush the middle phase.  

For example, a leader encourages an employee to give a presentation at the next staff meeting.  The employee is nervous but does it. Everyone comments on how great the presentation was. The employee believes for a minute that she could give more presentations in the future.  This would be a great skill to have as she was hoping to advance in the company. She gives the next presentation and people comment, but not as vocally about how great the first one was.  The employee finds herself a little discouraged. She’s asked to give a third presentation. As she considers it, she decides to do it but doesn’t get her hopes up. She believes it’s not going to be as great as the first one.  So, she goes through the motions of the presentation. No one comments good or bad. She decides that must mean she’s not good at giving presentations. So when she’s asked in the future to give presentations, she brushes the opportunity off because she doesn’t want to set herself up for failure or disappointment.  

So what is needed in this scenario?  The answer is simple. A system.

They need a system that will enable them to push through the middle phase.  Remember, it’s easier to stay in the comfort of the known. The unknown isn’t bad.  The unknown is simply uncomfortable.

The innovator or inventor who gives up in the middle phase of a process should set a system in place that rewards him for accomplishments.  They could be arbitrary rewards, but rewards are still rewards. Who doesn’t want a reward?

I remember a time when I was in the middle phase of revamping a production system.  This process was a long one, like 10 months of innovations, trials and testing processes etc. The company I worked for followed the PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) system.

I decided to break down the end goal into attainable steps.  I also decided to mentally break the processes into steps that would allow me to test any and all options.  My reward system was not based on how many successes we discovered as a team, but on how many options we tried.  If we as a team tried at least five options per week, I bought everyone on my team orange Hostess cupcakes from the vending machine.  If we tried ten options, then I bought everyone pizza. When we found what worked along the way, everyone got a five minute longer lunch break.  Eventually we changed gears and our reward system was based on finding success.

Like so many leaders have pointed out, great is the enemy of good.  In the early phase, we needed to find good not great or perfect. In this scenario, we continually improved on our changes.  We realized that continually improving was the key, not perfection. This is also known as kaizen.  

The same system could be modified for the person who is stepping out to start a new venture or company.  Creating a reward system based on how many customers you call or how many flea markets you set up your booth at.  I have created a system throughout my week that once I meet with three leaders in my organization for the purpose of leadership development, I allow myself to watch youtube videos for 15 minutes throughout my workday.  

The Middle is brutal.  It’s relentless.

So, for the employee who is wanting to acquire a new skill set that would help her in her promotion path, she would need to create a system that allows her to develop her skills in a safe environment.  Employers who help create those safe environments will benefit tremendously as well. If she will find moments throughout her week to work on small aspects of a skill set, it will lend to massive development in a year.  

Let’s take the skill of giving a presentation. There are so many skills that could be developed in weekly chunks.  For example, the art of breathing while giving a presentation, the pace of speech so that you’re engaging, but not speaking too fast that no one can keep up or the tension of looking at notes too much or not using notes at all.

I think the tension comes because people become disappointed that success doesn’t happen right away.   Why? The middle phase is brutal, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

Taking the time to create a system helps us push through the middle phase.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash