Change Catalyst with Shanna Mann: Strategy & Support for Sane Self-Employment

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In Which We Talk About System Failures (Complete with Examples)

There’s something my partner likes to say whenever people get pedantic about how things ought to be working. He’s quite a history buff, so he’s drawing on a lot of modern history when he nods sardonically and says, “Ah, yes, the system never fails. We can only fail the system.” This is fairly funny when it’s directed at people shouting on the internet, but not so funny when it’s directed at me.

Isn’t it funny how that works?

You probably know how I am about systems. Systems help you automate, automation helps you put your attention where it will do the most good, and ideally, this helps you do a lot of things very efficiently and well.

And naturally, it’s inevitable that the system breaks down at times. Like any complex machinery, sometimes it hits something that it can’t handle.

I got knocked off the wagon all the way back in January. More than six months ago.

It was bound to happen, really. I’d had a streak of like 9 months were things went very well indeed, and I felt like I was hitting my stride. Time to gear up, right?

Yeah, well, the Universe had other plans.

First there was a major repair bill that wiped out our savings. Then there was a series of health crises and deaths in the family. Then, one of the businesses that was supposed to be a sideline doubled in March. And then doubled again in June. My long-term plans for Change Catalyst required a website overhaul in preparation for proper marketing initiatives, so I went to ground in February and hardly anyone has seen me since.

Like any smart business owner, I triaged the money-making activities; my clients, and my sideline businesses. And every time that things would slack off, I would try to return to my old template; weekly blog posts, really useful emails a couple times a month, all tied into the master plan set forth in my 6 Month Plan.

And every time I did, it ground to a halt like I’d popped the clutch.

And no wonder, of course. I was in too high a gear.

My previous template was built on nine months of momentum, at least 20 hours a week of available time to write, and a certain amount of stability in my schedule.

In my current situation, after handling the paid work, I have perhaps 5-10 hours a week to work on higher level stuff for my business, like blog posts, like marketing, like outreach, like automation.

I’m telling you this not as a tale of woe, but because this is an issue that many of you will encounter as well.

Shit will happen, and you will have to adapt to the situation that is, not try to make the situation fit the plan you made.

  • You might get divorced
  • You might have children, or a second child that’s way more of a handful than the first. Or your kid might start having problems in school and you spend a lot of time helping her or on the phone with the teacher. There’s a lot of potential for chaos in families.
  • You might get a nice mention in someone’s book and your client list will triple.
  • You might get sick or become caretaker for someone else
  • You might undertake a partnering opportunity that blows up into more than you anticipate.
  • Your house might get flattened in a tornado
  • You might just burn out (yes, I said it. We burn out.)

A client of mine consciously scaled back her business after her last marketing push in preparation for a big move. She still feels guilty about it, like she’s failing her business. But what she’s actually doing is honoring the circumstances. She’s dealing with what is, and not what she’d like to be happening. Mental bandwidth is a real thing, and you have to honor it.

That’s why I push the “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you can be wild and original in your work,” thing. Because there’s only so much chaos and uncertainty you can effectively cope.

I’m still figuring out how I can run the public-facing side of Change Catalyst on five hours a week. It won’t be easy, but it does have to be done, because you can’t run a business indefinitely without marketing. But some of that time will also have to be invested in figuring out how to hand off responsibilities in my so-called sidelines. To continue my transmission metaphor, it looks like I’m going to have to drop it in low and let it lug for a while. It’s not a long-term solution, but it’s the situation I’m facing right now.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

When my partner says sarcastically,  “The system cannot fail; we can only fail the system,” he’s speaking to our tendency to take the plan we made, or the ideal we have in our head, as the right way to do things. Which means that any deviation from the right thing is wrong or bad. That we are failing.

But that’s not true. I mean, the plan doesn’t even exist, not in the real world. It’s just a hypothetical, and moreover, it posits a reality that is clearly not occurring. So the plan doesn’t exist, and the reality on which it’s based doesn’t exist SO HOW CAN IT BE TELLING YOU WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING?

To use me as an example again, my 5 hours-a-week thing might not work. In fact, it’s patently unsustainable. I’m aware of this. I know I’ll have a window of only a few months at best to rejigger my situation so it is sustainable before I start to risk a nasty case of burnout. It’s not clear what the best way to that is yet, but the situation will end, one way or another. If I get burnt out and can no longer do the work, my sideline will just go under and I’ll recover and go back to the original plan of marketing Change Catalyst the way the plan was in January 2013. It’ll hurt a little bit economically, and I’ll lose some momentum with CC, but life is long, and after a while it will just be a blip in my memory. Remember what a clusterfuck 2013 was? Almost as bad as 2006!

But if I do manage to rejigger things, I’ll have a really solid, mostly passive income stream– I mean, look at how it grew without any intervention from me. If I can harness it properly, and scale it effectively, I’ll be good. This is the heart of entrepreneurship.

But there’s no playbook for this. I can’t automate yet, every thing is too new and messy. I can’t fail the system. There is no system.

There’s just me, trying to take my circumstances and play them to my best advantage.

And if things aren’t going exactly how you planned, I’ll bet that’s what you’re doing, too.

Care to share what’s not going according to plan in your life?