In the 1998 movie Enemy of the State Gene Hackman plays a former CIA operative named Brill who lives off the grid. He doesn’t use phones, emails or credit cards. He doesn’t have a social security number and generates his own electricity. He is deliberately un-contactable.
Last year I played out my own “off the grid” experiment when I went to Borneo for three weeks. I didn’t check emails and only turned the phone on every 4-5 days to check messages. I made no contact with anyone outside of Borneo during that time. At the time I was involved with four companies. It was an experiment in personal redundancy.
I planned ahead and made sure, as much as possible, that I wasn’t needed during that time. But I also made it clear that even if I was then it was unlikely that I would be available or contactable. What I was really saying was that I trust you to make good decisions. I have faith in you and I know you will do the best job you can and even if you make a mistake I will have your back when I get back. What I was trying to create was a “safe zone” for people to operate in – to be creative, brave and resilient in an environment where the accountability bar had just been raised.
So did it work out? It sure did. The four businesses did well and I received no calls while I was away. In almost all cases good decisions were taken and even the ones that could have been better weren’t dreadful. What was apparent was that the teams collectively relished the challenge and the (extra) freedom to operate. The experiment reinforced that the internal structures were right as well as the strong capability of the leaders. From a selfish viewpoint it reduced the need for me to be involved as deeply as I had been at the day to day level and allowed me to focus on what I like doing – creating opportunities and managing risks.
So much emphasis nowadays is placed on “connectivity” and the need to be available 24/7/365. I don’t like it. I’ve never been available to this extent and won’t ever be. In my view, it’s better to build businesses that can operate largely without you. This takes time, of course, but it is possible if you focus on building an organisation with deep foundations of (team) trust and clear, unambiguous objectives and accountabilities.
Too often it goes the other way. The laptop and phone are brought on holidays because the contra view is taken – i.e. 24/7/365 availability is required. Why not just organise yourself better, set better expectations regarding your availability or otherwise and empower your team to make decisions on your behalf? If you can’t do any of this then fix your business so you can. In no circumstances is single-point dependency (even for emergencies) a good business condition.
If you went off the grid for three weeks what would happen to your business – would it falter, power on or do something in between? The (honest) answer might be the quickest way to find out how good it really is…