Are You a Keeper of the Flame?

Do you work for a mission-driven organization? Do you uphold certain standards that you steadfastly believe are essential to the success of that organization? Have you found yourself fighting for these standards, regardless of the impact on the organization’s results?

You may be a Keeper of the Flame.

I recognize flame-keepers because I have been one myself.

As a young communications manager, I upheld the flame of effective communication. If someone gave me something to proofread, I edited it. If they gave me something to edit, I rewrote it, sometimes redefining its purpose. I drove people crazy.

But I believed that I was doing the right thing: it was important that the communications we delivered were clear and actionable, so our readers could take action quickly and get results. And so that the communications would be as little of a distraction as possible from the mission. I worked long hours to do this, stepped on toes, insisted things had be “right.”

My path shifted out of communications into other areas. From the outside, I watched other Keepers of the Flame uphold their personal crusade.

  • Flame-keepers who fought against new systems because those systems undermined their personally-built systems – although the new systems were more scalable, used more current technology, and provided other benefits.
  • Flame-keepers who insisted, that scope always had to be primary, to provide customers with high-quality products. Attempts to build iteratively was described as “just throwing sh_t at our customers.”
  • Flame-keepers who imposed unrealistic standards, requiring every deliverable to be flawless. No applicant could meet their rigorous standards. New hires quickly moved on. Team members burnt out on long hours – or convinced they couldn’t measure up.

Why do people become Keepers of the Flame?

It may start in a good place – you believe passionately in and want to do your best to serve the mission. You define success by your ability to keep your flame alight. When you are required to change your approach, you feel fear. If these changes mean a new flame or a series of smaller, more distributed flames, is your success diminished?

You fight tooth and nail to protect the flame you hold sacred from the Change that is threatening it. Your boss can’t stop you – they mean well but they’ll come around when they see. Those expensive consultants can’t stop you – they aren’t evaluated on how well they protect the organizational standards. Looking at data can’t stop you: you keep asking for more data and more, pushing back at the tide.

With all these forces threatening you, your armor grows thicker, your sword sharper. You must stand firm against this change – not perceiving that you are the thing about to undermine your organization’s mission.

How to Stop Your Flame from Impeding Progression

First, get clear on what you are fighting for

My communications manager-self fought for clear and actionable communications, with as little distraction from the organization’s mission as possible. In my next communications role, I taught my team to set clear priorities for how much effort to invest:

  • Strategic communications received our very best work.
  • Most communications received “good enough” editing, so that they were clear enough and didn’t distract from the strategies.
  • Some communications received limited work – we made sure they wouldn’t be a distraction and sent them out with minimum effort.

Our stand-ups focused on prioritization and encouraged passionate debate: was this worth our best effort or not? We still fought for the flame of effective communications – but in a way that served the mission as the organization evolved.

When you know what you are fighting for, letting go of details becomes easier.

Next, ask yourself, what would make this impossible request possible?

Let’s say you are asked to build a new product in a minimal amount of time. When Time is at the top of the project management triangle, look at Scope and Resources and come up with a proposal.

Don’t insist that they have to set the boundaries around the requirements. Don’t ask what your budget is. Don’t talk about the hit that quality will take. Say, “Yes, I can hit that timeline. Here’s what it will include (scope) and what I’ll need (resources).” And, if they don’t like that, negotiate. They want more scope; they need to pony up more time or more resources.

Take control of the approach and you will feel less threatened by the change.

Lastly, trust yourself.

You may feel a new approach threatens the flame of quality that you hold aloft for your customers.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m all about product quality – but this fear is an indication that you’re not trusting your experience. You’re like the frog in the simmering pot: the quality you produce has been quietly growing warmer without you realizing it. A customer jumping in from the outside will feel the heat, even if you don’t.

In other words, let go of your fear and trust that even a “good enough” product will satisfy your customers. And, if it doesn’t, learn and iterate.

Are you a Keeper of the Flame?

Share in the comments:

  • What is your flame?
  • Did you recognize yourself in the descriptions above?
  • How have you kept your flame adaptable as times change?

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