Last Year Sucked: What to Do About It

This past year sucked. I know lots of my friends believe this. Even if you do not ask, they are happy to provide you with a rationale: domestic and overseas terror attacks, police shootings, Syria, the loss of friends and faith in humanity during and after our presidential election, Prince, David Bowie, Alan Thicke, Carrie Fisher.

Nearly everyone — including the most erudite and successful among us — has reason to believe that 2016 sucked.

This launching of complaints is not a phenomenon unique to the passing of another trip around the sun. In truth, complaints have been the currency of our communication. The best and most artful whiners are lauded in our culture. Everything from canonized literature, such as Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” to pop culture, like “The Daily Show,” is centered on sarcastic complaining.

Complaining is important

As of late, it seems there is an effort afoot to be overly optimistic as leaders. We try to mask our feelings in an effort to get along. We don’t reveal the depth of our complaint for fear of being branded as whiners. Also, there is this general movement around happiness at work. And no one wants to be the killjoy who ruins everyone’s happy little workplace.

However, developmental psychologist and culture expert Robert Kegan would disagree. He believes that complaints are a cornerstone for real change. “People complain only about the things they care about, and they complain the loudest about the things they care about most.” With this understanding, whining about 2016 may be the fire you need to create real transformation in 2017.

“People complain only about the things they care about, and they complain the loudest about the things they care about most.”

The trouble we get into is that there is not yet a widespread understanding of how to convert a complaint into a conviction — something that can inspire action and create sustainable change. Here is how to convert your complaints about last year into design principles — ways to guide your planning for next year:

1. Create a specific design challenge.

For the purposes of this exercise, it can be “What is our best strategy for growth in 2017?” Modify it as you need to, but the idea is to ask a question about which you have strong feelings.

2. Write down all the complaints you have about that challenge.

These complaints are about your past attempts to solve the challenge, feelings revealed when you think about the challenge and attempts to solve the same challenge in other workplaces. Think of as many as you can.

3. Categorize your complaints.

When you complete the list, look for patterns in the complaints. Themes will emerge. Assign no more than four categories to the complaints. “We never have enough time to solve strategic challenges” is similar to “I cannot create systems that allow for change.” Both of them are in the category of “Challenges with business strategy.”

4. Turn the categories into normative language.

Convert the language you use to complain into what you must do — your new commitments. “We must have a clearly understood work flow for creating strategy.”

5. Use these principles to address the design challenge.

They may seem obvious, but remember, if they were, you would just start with convictions. Set priorities and be ruthless with your principles.

This may sound like a tall order, but it is nothing compared with the creative energy you are expending on complaining for the sake of complaint. Take that energy and channel it to create something new in the world.

Check out the full article in the January issue of Small Business Monthly.