“What in the world could they be talking about?” my wife said to her coworker Svetlana, as her husband Yuri and I chatted intensely at their company Christmas party.
“Where are you from?” I asked Yuri, noticing his accent.
“Ukraine,” he said, then quickly followed with a dismissive, “Russia.”
“Russia or Ukraine?” I asked.
“You know Ukraine?” he asked.
“Well, I haven’t been there, but I know where it is,” I said.
A few more such questions indicated to me I was being “qualified” by Yuri before he’d invest in a conversation. So, after making it clear that I’d heard of the Soviet Union, and (this blew his mind) read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” we became fast friends. That book came up after I’d asked Yuri what his father did during the war.
“He spent 10 years in a prison camp doing hard labor,” he said. “That’s what he did.”
“What did they charge him with?” I asked.
“Nothing really — it didn’t matter in those days,” he said.
“Yeah. I remember that from the book — Solzhenitsyn said 10-year sentences were given out like candy.”
From there, we went on to talk about how Yuri had come to this country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, how he’d had a master’s degree in engineering but could only get the most menial of jobs, and how he’d essentially re-built his life and career.
Later that evening, my wife introduced me to Hasan, the husband of her co-worker Sally. For whatever reason, our conversation went straight to football, specifically how my sons were playing and how he hoped to have his son playing if he could just get Sally onboard.
From there, we moved on to chatting about our lines of work. Hasan is a lawyer with his own firm. Interestingly, after college, he wound up taking the LSATs on a bet (he wagered a friend that he’d do better on the test without taking a prep course than his friend would do with taking one). After doing well on the test, Hasan figured he might as well give law school a shot, but was unsure he wanted to actually be a lawyer. So as not to get his parents’ hopes up, he didn’t even tell them he was going to law school until he started year three.
Hasan started his practice solo, only recently taking on a partner when it made sense; when he found someone compatible who was bringing something to the table. Most interesting was how he dealt with downturns in business, especially during the post-economic crisis which began when the housing market crashed in 2008.
“All the business we had been doing dried up, but do you know what kind of legal work people needed? Bankruptcies. Did I know a thing about them? No. But I took some night classes, added bankruptcy services to the web site and struggled my way through — it saved the firm,” he said.
“I totally get that,” I said, reflecting on our eight years in business. “When times get tough, you’ve got to rely on your brain and source ideas from your team. If you just keep doing what you’ve been doing, you won’t be doing it for long.”
And that surely is a fact. The discussion with Hasan helped me clarify my thoughts on how organizations can evolve to survive. When things are not going well and something must change, there are two main options: you can either look at the market and ask, “What is needed now that we may be able to provide if we learn some new skills, if we go outside our comfort zone a bit?” or “What could be a natural outgrowth of what we do today? What could we fairly easily provide with our existing knowledge base, skill set and tools?” Of course, going with the latter might mean nobody wants your new offering, while going with the former includes the risks of not being able to learn the new skill, of not being able to deliver.
For example, though Hasan realized bankruptcy work was needed, jumping into that unexplored part of the law involved the risk that it might be too complex to learn in whatever time he had. But luckily for him, he made it work.
In your work and in your organizations, look to explore both these avenues of growth and innovation. When I think back to the product development we’ve done over the years, it’s usually followed one of these two courses.
After finishing my conversations with Yuri and Hasan, I marveled at how those enlightening chats covered only two of the, perhaps, 30 or 40 people who had been to the event. I’d gotten some good takeaways from each conversation, I’d learned some things.
While 2017’s holiday party circuit has run its course, 2018 will offer plenty of opportunities — at conferences, work parties and personal engagements — to get to know new folks, pick their brains and hear of their experiences. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — people are fascinating. Don’t believe me? Just ask.