Presenting

Like it or not, sooner or later you are going to have to stand up in front of somebody, or maybe a group of somebodies, and convey some sort of information to them. This is called “presenting”. This event usually occurs when it is deemed that you know more about a certain topic than those in your audience do. Sometimes it is actually the case, and sometimes it is best to study hard and do some research beforehand so that again it can be the case. Regardless, how you perform on this stage, conveying information to other people, can determine a great deal regarding your opportunities to continue progressing in your business career.

Laurence J. Peter is the author of the book the “Peter Principle”. In it he states:

”…that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”. In other words, employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”

Understand that the ability to cogently present and convey information to others is a baseline, table stakes capability in business. If you are not good at it, you can assume that you are at your current level of incompetence and will remain there until your presentation skills improve.

Also understand that technical competence, or mastery of the topic is only part of the requirement for making successful presentations. In other words, you may know what you are talking about, but that doesn’t mean that you will be successful at getting your point across to others on the topic. I’ll try to go through a few items that you should keep in mind when you are presenting. Many should be obvious, however some maybe not so much so.

Who is your audience?
Believe it or not, this is important. Not everyone is going to be interested in what you have to say. Who are the people in the room that will be listening to you, and why are they there? Your presentation needs to match their expectations. Management will want general trends and overviews. Individual contributors may want more specifics. Sales, engineering and finance all have different expectations regarding the presentations they see. Sales wants to know how whatever you are talking about will help them sell more. If this aspect is not addressed, for them it will be wasted time. Likewise, finance will want to know about the costs, revenue, profitability of the topic. Telling them about how it will help them sell more will at best be only marginally acceptable.

What is the “Thesis Statement” for your presentation?
What is the purpose of your presentation? Why is this presentation important to them? Is it just to report on the progress of an internal company project? Is it a customer product or service presentation as part of an ongoing customer sales engagement? Are you trying to get management to agree to fund development of a new product?

The point here is that a presentation is usually used to convince somebody about something. Whether it is that progress is actually occurring on a project, or that your product is superior to the competition’s, you should have either a specific or implicit thesis, or reason for your presentation. This will help keep you on topic, and again it will help limit the amount of extraneous information that may try and creep into your presentation.

How much time do you have?

As Gary Larson has shown, time is money. People have only a certain amount of time that they can devote to certain activities. You may have the most import, or most interesting topic to talk about, but you will never have all the time that you will feel that you will need to be able to comfortably talk about it.

“One well-known formulation for PowerPoint presentations is the 10/20/30 rule. This rule dictates that you should use about ten slides for a twenty minute presentation, and each slide should utilize thirty point font. In other words, each slide should be about two minutes in length.”
https://www.wikihow.com/Choose-the-Right-Number-of-Slides-for-a-Powerpoint-Presentation

Needless to say, most presentations do not adhere to this information, and as such, most presentations today, in my opinion are often not very good. If you can’t say it succinctly in twenty to thirty minutes with ten to fifteen slides, at most, then you have too much non-critical information in your presentation. Be succinct.

Proof read your presentation. Several times.
With today’s spelling and grammatical checking capabilities, there is no excuse for misspelled words, improper grammar, improper punctuation or improper word usage (their, there, they’re).
End of story.
How can you be perceived as an expert, leader, or in this case imparter of information and wisdom if you cannot deliver the message free of mechanical errors. Having them undermines the intended message.

Simplify everything associated with your presentation.
Not everyone will have your level of knowledge regarding the topic. Specifically define any acronyms you may choose to use. You are presenting slides, not writing a book. Bulletize everything possible. It will help break up the slide. It will make it easier for the audience to follow. It will force you to be concise in what you say. Remember, you are not having a conversation. You are presenting.

Do not read your slides to the audience.
There is a very good chance that everyone in your audience can read. You don’t need to read to them.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is an English language-idiom. It refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single picture, this picture conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_picture_is_worth_a_thousand_words

Convey the essence of your topic with the slide and let the verbal aspect of your presentation deliver any necessary specifics to fill in the story.

Unless you are specifically presenting a detailed topic, such as tabulated data, or specific engineering or performance metrics, etc, the less verbiage on a slide, the better. As I said, you can speak to the slide to impart the specifics. It also enables you to manipulate your time allotment by speaking more to certain slides and less to others, and still stay within your time allotment.

Respect other people’s time.

Be ready to start on time. Set the standard for answering any questions either during (interactive presenting) or at the end of the presentation. Do not run longer than your allotted time. There may be instances where the consensus is that you should take more time, depending on the topic and audience, but in general, you need to be prepared to finish within your allotted time.

As business continues to get more complex, it is many times an easy trap to fall into in making our presentations also more complex. We have the technical capabilities to edit and manipulate both data and image to the point where we can have far more data on a single slide than can either be presented or understood quickly. We continue to generate more complex data and then use more complex means to convey it.

It seems that both the amount of data per slide, and the number of slides per presentation continues to expand. It takes us longer and longer to present the information, and many times we end up spending time presenting to an audience that has a marginal interest in the topic to begin with.

Presentations of all types are an integral part of business. With the continued acceleration of the velocity of business, we need to be ever more mindful of both the time we spend presenting a topic, as well as the time we spend preparing the presentation on the topic. Shorter and more focused presentations are a far more preferable means to convey and convince than the seemingly more prevalent, long and detailed ones that appear to be in vogue today.

Expertise is more better displayed by making the complex simple and easy to understand than it is by making the presentation more complex, and longer, to match the topic.

Process Purpose

With the continued increase of the process-oriented approach to all facets of business, a new phrase has found its way into almost every business conversation and lexicon: “How do we fix the process?”. Immediately upon hearing this, it is not uncommon for multiple teams to set up multiple cross functional calls, across multiple geographies and time zones to discuss the problems. Multiple issues will be defined with the process, and multiple action items will be assigned.

We are no longer fixing business problems or issues. We are fixing processes. Much of the generated activity and churn associated with fixing the process might be avoided with the simple act of stepping back and first correctly understanding what the purpose of the process is.

Many times, we all take it for granted that the process is there to help employees perform their required tasks. We associate processes with making things go faster. Making tasks easier to complete. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, however, maybe not. I’ll provide a few generic examples.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was relatively new to business, I remember there used to be a very special place where companies, business units, groups, teams, etc., kept a very special resource known as supplies. Supplies usually consisted of the little things that made it easier for employees to do their jobs, such as pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, staplers, tape and tape dispensers, highlighters and the like. When people needed these supplies, they would go find the person that had the key to the supply location, get access to it and select the supplies that they needed to continue efficiently performing their job.

As time passed and costs and cash flows continued to draw greater and greater attention from the company’s financial community, it was decided that this anachronistic way of providing employees supplies was not in the company’s best interest. It may have been efficient for the employee, but not for the company. Seemingly random and untracked amounts of money were being spent on supplies, and then these supplies would just sit idle (reference to the utility of money and cash flow) somewhere, waiting for someone to come by and use them. And then there was no specific process or methodology to be able to track who was actually using these supplies.

Unaccounted for money and expense was sitting in supply cabinets everywhere.

The result was that associated support teams and their supply budgets were reduced. And usually in their place a new process was created where individual employees would then have to access the on-line purchasing systems themselves where they could then order their required supplies.

Now admittedly the preceding topic has created an exacerbated issue in that it does require a change in employee behaviors. In the past, an employee would wait until their pen ran out of ink, or they used their last piece of paper before going to the supply location and getting more. Now they had to take into account the added time and complication of gaining access to the supply ordering system, and the delay associated with the supply provider delivering the desired supplies, and the internal delivery system to get desired supplies from the loading dock to their office.

What used to be a simple walk to the supply location to get any required supplies, had now become a multi-day, multi-system, multi-approval ordering process.

Now a days, if you need supplies, you had better plan ahead. Or you can just run by the office supply store yourself, and buy your own supplies. Either way, the corporate goal of the new office supplies process has been achieved: the amount of money the company spends on supplies has been reduced.

The point I am making here is that the supply ordering process was not implemented to make it easier to order supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount spent on supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount of money the company has tied up in supplies, sitting in some supply cabinet, waiting for someone to come by and get them.

The same can now be said just about any process that involves the expenditure of company funds. Travel approval policies are not there to make it easier for people to travel. Hiring processes are not there to make it easier to hire people. These processes are not put in place not to make it easier, or faster to perform these functions. They are in place for corporate tracking and control.

Just because they take extra time and require multiple approvals does not mean they are broken processes. In many instances it means that they are working as planned.

On the other side of the coin, we can look at those processes that are associated with the provision of the product or service that the company sells in its selected markets.

Sales people inherently understand that the relatively cheaper a product is versus its competition, the easier it is to sell and the greater the probability for a successful sale. Companies that vest too much uncontrolled authority in the sales arm have a tendency to experience lower margins and profitability, as sales tries to press for lower prices.

As proof of this point, would you be willing to go to the gas station across the street to buy their gasoline if it was five cents a gallon cheaper? How about two cents a gallon? There is always a point where convenience and timing can outweigh price differential, but in today’s cost intensive world price always plays a key role in everyone’s purchase decisions.

Sales and pricing processes are then normally put in place to enable business management to have greater influence on pricing in an effort to achieve desired profit levels. These are not processes designed to make it easier to create quotes and provide lower prices. These are processes designed to put checks and balances in place that protect the company’s profitability.

If you are a sales person attempting to compete for a customer’s order, they are an impediment and hindrance to your potential success. They are a broken process that is making it more difficult for you to obtain the order.

They are also probably the result of someone (or multiple someone’s) demonstrating bad judgement. Somewhere, sometime, someone probably knew that a price that was supplied to a customer was probably not in the best interest of the company as a whole, but did it anyway in order to get an order. The individual goal was achieved, but the corporate profitability suffered.

I have said many times that process is implemented as a substitute for judgement. In this case, bad judgement.

Sales people inherently know that the company must be profitable, if it is to continue in business. Margins must be at sufficient levels to meet the numerous business objectives such as paying for expenses, investing in new product development, paying sales commissions and providing a reasonable return to its investors.

Unfortunately, most sales incentive plans are focused solely on obtaining a top line order level. This is the objective that drives sales people to try and drive prices down, thereby making it easier for them to sell. It is also contrary to business objectives listed above.

In this situation there would be two key aspects of the business structure creating friction. The physics definition of friction is:

“… the resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another.” https://www.livescience.com/37161-what-is-friction.html

One trying to move price down, and one trying to increase prices. Process or not, this is inefficient for the company and creates waste.

Instead of creating a process to govern a function that generates corporate friction, which I would liken to the “stick” approach to problem resolution, (removing independent thought and decision making capability from those closest to the customer) I would suggest that It might be better to implement incentives that encourage the desired behaviors, or the “carrot” approach.

What might happen if the company offered the incentive of increased commissions to sales with higher margins, and at the same time offered the deterrent of significantly reduced commissions on sales with lower margins?

Instead of creating a process that can become an obstacle to the desired event (getting office supplies, or generating competitive customer offers and proposals…) which must be dealt with, or in some instances overcome, why not reexamine the event (and judgement point) that is driving the creation of the proposed process? Aligning individual, business unit and corporate goals, with appropriate incentives and deterrents for specific behaviors could be a much more efficient way of dealing with the issue.

With this approach in mind, it might be found that much of the effort that may be currently spent on “fixing the process” can be refocused on solving the underlying business issue and need. This is because, as has just been demonstrated, just because a process is not helping the individual be more effective and efficient at doing their job, does not mean that it is a broken process.

The “Hail Mary” Career Strategy

I was riffing through the Yahoo! Finance page the other day and saw what I thought might be an interesting article: “The Real World Is Increasingly Rough For 30-Year-Old Americans”, by Katie Krzaczek. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-real-world-is-increasingly-rough-for-30-year-old-americans_us_5b574ae2e4b0fd5c73c947fe
So, I clicked on it, hoping it was not the obligatory “click-bait” that we have all come to love. To my surprise it wasn’t. But it did send me to “The Huffington Post” page. Before I went any further, I did a little research on just who the Huffington Post is. I didn’t want to be responsible for furthering some Russian troll’s agenda.

It turns out that Wikipedia has this to say about the Huffington Post:

“HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post and sometimes abbreviated HuffPo) is a liberal American news and opinion website and blog that has localized and international editions.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HuffPost

With that out of the way, and despite the fact that am probably far from being considered either a thirty-year-old, or a liberal, I read on.

The article dealt with the idea that despite the fact that all the available empirical evidence that that should logically lead to a different conclusion, this age group demographic was by and large positive about their earning potential.

The article cited the available data that the current percentage of thirty-year-olds earning more than their parents was at an all-time low: approximately fifty percent as opposed to almost ninety percent fifty years ago. It brought up these additional facts:

“Bloomberg recently used Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data to highlight how today’s young people “are weighed down by student debt and stagnant wages”, and

“Axios published several charts to show how more of today’s 30-year-olds are living with their parents, paying higher college tuition, taking on significant debt, and buying fewer homes than 30-year-olds four decades ago.”

In short it was painting a pretty bleak picture for what has been termed Generation Y, but was noting that they were still positive about their earnings prospects. In fact, it pointed out that more than half the people in this demographic expected to be millionaires.

Now, perhaps with inflation a million dollars neither goes as far, nor is as difficult to obtain as when I was in this age group, but even so, this seemed pretty amazing to me. What was even more amazing to me was the way they thought that they would get there.

Ethan Wolff-Mann and Melody Hamm of Yahoo Finance noted in the article:

“I’m not exactly sure where all of this positive sentiment is coming from… I’m not sure whether the stagnant wages are contributing to this or anything like that. I do think … people [are] just hoping that something comes along that they walk into luck.”

“… some young people “think they can become influencers or they can sort of get a following, perhaps have a YouTube channel, perhaps be on Instagram and get $5,000 to pose with a bag or a beauty product.”

“Unfortunately, the power of social media, and the “Hail Mary shot” it presents …. works for only a fraction of those hoping to get rich quick.”

Oh, my goodness…

This approach strikes me as betting your future on winning the lottery, or the Readers Digest Sweepstakes, or some such equivalent opportunity. Yes, it is true that someone usually wins, but as noted above, it is usually a small fraction of those that are playing. However, planning on being “lucky” does not strike me as either a good or intelligent strategy for making money, or prospering in business.

If you don’t believe me, just walk into any casino on the planet. When inside, look around. Notice all the nice employees, luxurious prizes, and very nice crystal, wood and marble appointments. Then look at all the people in there gambling. Understand that those are the people paying for all those nice things in that casino. Yes, there may be a very small percentage of them that actually win and are held up as examples to all the rest, but by and large, the vast majority of people that enter a casino leave it with less money than when they entered it. That’s how casinos stay in business and pay for all the nice appointments.

It seems that many may now have the opinion that you no longer have to work hard and excel at something to be successful. Perhaps it is the constant bombardment from the media depicting reality “stars” who seem to only excel at being famous as opposed to being talented, that is influencing this generation as to what success is. Perhaps it is the commercials only showing the Publishers Clearing House winners, and not the millions who don’t win.

Rightly or wrongly I have learned to associate success with hard work. Yes, there has to be some innate ability, but it is the drive and hard work to make something of that ability that leads to success. It seems that too often we attribute success to “luck”. Perhaps that is why so many now are relying on this Hail Mary approach to success. They just expect to get lucky.

The Roman philosopher Seneca is attributed as being the source of the following quote on luck:

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”

But we now depict the successful as not being prepared to be anything other than famous and successful. They are no longer famous because they were successful, they were successful because they were famous.

Too often we see the successful after they have “paid their dues”. Gates, Bezos, Jobs, Buffet and the others all worked long hours and were driven to be successful. I guess watching people work hard doesn’t make for good television, although the “Jobs vs. Gates” episode of the “American Genius” series on The National Geographic channel was an outstanding depiction of what hard work looked like.

It was also condensed down into a one-hour time frame and put together thirty years after the actual events. It seems today that people want to know and see who will be kicked off the island, or out of the house, tonight.

In business there are very few opportunities for the Hail Mary approach to success. I am sure that they happen occasionally. I just have never seen one, let alone had the opportunity to participate in one. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Just that they appear to be very rare opportunities and events.

As an example, when discussing the rarity of events, for the longest time people thought that the only type of swan that existed was a white one. There was even an old proverb relating to them (“A rare bird in the land”, first attributed to the Roman satirist Juvenal.)

It was not until relatively recent times that it was found that black swans do actually exist (in western Australia). This idea of “The Highly Improbable” was then put into a theory by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, present day scholar and statistician, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nassim_Nicholas_Taleb to explain the rarity of certain events:

“The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist – a saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

Furthering the idea of the rarity of the business Hail Mary, or Black Swan event, is the continued relative drift away from critical thinking business opportunities in favor of process expansion and edification. Simply put, the business structure of today does not lend itself to many Hail Mary opportunities for success.

Instead business presents the opportunity for focused and hard work, and the potential opportunity for advancement and increased responsibility. “Potential” being the key word. In business today, many have the ability and intellect for advancement, but few have the focus and drive that Gates, Jobs, Bezos and others have demonstrated as a requisite for their levels of success.

The opportunity for success in business is still there, as shown by those that do rise to the most senior levels of leaders in it. It seems it is more the internal drive (and hard work) that separates the successful in business as opposed to them planning on being lucky.

This idea does not play as well when stacked against reality TV, or YouTube channel auteurs who are seemingly being successful at being famous – although I am sure that being famous is probably hard work as well.

What is interesting to me is the way Krzaczek ends her article on thirty-year old’s plans and methodologies for success and getting rich, in a seemingly “liberal” publication. She cites Andy Sewer, Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief, who said:

“Get real, work hard, and don’t spend money. The best way to get rich in America is not to spend money.”

That sounds like a pretty conservative, but smart approach to success to both getting rich, and being successful in business to me.

Seminars and Webinars

I think we can all agree that one of the fastest growing business segments in the world today, regardless of industry, has to be the seminar and webinar segment. It has to be. Just judging by the relative number of and ever-growing list of empirical data that shows up in my email on a daily basis. I never think of myself as particularly unique within the business world in general, or within my chosen industry segment specifically, so if the expanding number of webinar solicitations is happening to me, it must be happening to others. If my mailbox is any indication of what everyone else is seeing in their mailbox, there must now be a seminar or webinar available for each of us to attend, just about every hour of every day.

When will this all stop?

I came in on a Monday morning to no less than five new seminar and webinar invitations. The first was a Hipaa Compliance educational opportunity, as if I even know what that is. I had to look it up. I guess I could stand to be educated on Hipaa.

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) is United States legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information. https://searchhealthit.techtarget.com/definition/HIPAA

Okay. Nope, don’t need that.

The next was “Team Effectiveness: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Nope, I think we are probably already dysfunctional enough without having to go to a webinar about it. I can just look around if I want to see dysfunctionality. I don’t need to pay a fee to see it.

I was concerned that there might be some sort of professional certification associated with that one.

The next was a SCRUM Study webinar. This one actually did propose some sort of certification. For those of you not familiar with this discipline, it is the latest and greatest variant of project management. While possibly intriguing, this one also went into the “Nope” file.

Then there was the “Keto-Burn” Protocol for Weight loss. Obviously spam, but I guess it does say something about our fixation on our weight and the growing obesity problem in the US if there are engines out there SPAMming it to business email addresses.

I personally ascribe to the age old “Eat a little less – Move around a little more” methodology of weight control.

The final one was “Stability Studies – Key steps to design and analyze the results to estimate a product’s shelf life”. Quite possibly a very interesting topic. However, not something that I think could generate appreciable business value over the course of a ninety-minute webinar.

The one thing that all these disparate webinars on all these disparate topics had in common was that they wanted me to give them money (in varying amounts) for the privilege of attending. Each of these solicitations referred to me by name and acted as if we were either long lost family, or possibly recently separated friends. They just needed a little of my money now, and they were sure that they could improve my livelihood, if not world in the future.

The first thought I had was: Are there really any people, anywhere on this planet that will sign up for one of these seminars or webinars solely based on an unrequested email solicitation?

I guess there must be.

Now I can understand how and why people will give money to a Nigerian prince if he sends them an email explaining that if they send him some money today, he will in turn send them a whole lot more money at some future date. Who wouldn’t want to make that investment? I keep waiting and hoping for such an email and opportunity, but at least up to now, to no avail.

But who would want to sign up for a webinar on some mundane or arcane topic, based on an invitation from someone who wasn’t a Nigerian prince?

Unlike the previous generation of direct mail – direct response (DMDR) campaigns, where businesses actually had to spend and invest money on the postage required to deliver their opportunities to the target addresses, all today’s email campaigns need is just an email address to send it to. It seems the internet-based bits that carry the message are essentially free. This means that if anyone, anywhere, for whatever reason ever responds to these campaign requests, and signs up for one of the webinars, there is an immediate positive business value generated to the sender. As I alluded to before, if one person does it, there will invariably be others that do it as well. After all, it essentially costs them nothing to send the invitation.

They are in essence trying to get something from you for nothing.

If they don’t. No problem. All they do is just fill up your inbox. If they do, then eureka, they scored.

A quick check of my Junk Mail / Spam Filter showed that there were no less than eleven other invitations to other events of varying magnitude that I would obviously have been foolish in the extreme to ignore, that arrived, and were diverted, over the weekend. I quickly identified the five senders that got through as spam and they too were now in the junk file. I am hopeful that all future requests from these sources will also be captured there before I have to deal with them again.

Undaunted by this apparent avalanche of cyber-trash that now appears in my email mailbox, I went and did a little research, as I am wont to do. The results are both surprising and unsurprising at the same time.

Contrary to popular belief (at least my popular belief) DMDR marketing campaigns are not dead. They still exist outside of the internet. In fact, there is an industry association set up for it (the Direct Marketing Association, strangely enough) and they continue to provide information and research on both its effectiveness as well as the effectiveness of what seems to be the bourgeoning direct spamming approach.

“Though there has been a reduction in response rate for direct mail over the last ten years, it’s still holding strong. In its response rate report, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) analyzed Bizo and Epsilon data and found that direct mail achieves a 4.4% response rate, compared to 0.12% for email.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2017/08/30/why-direct-mail-marketing-is-far-from-dead/#3c5e2ffc311d

I don’t know if I am horrified or relieved that such an august periodical such a Forbes is dedicating their precious column-inches to topics such as this. Then I remembered that Forbes is now also publishing on-line so the cost per column-inch has also come down appreciably in association with the cost of bits on the internet.

I guess they can now also expect an acceptance and response rate equal to the on-line DMDR people.

I wonder what that may have done to their advertising rates and values. Just a passing thought.

Not surprisingly, the DMA study shows that their preferred method of annoying people with unrequested solicitations via non-email methods, is close to forty times more successful that annoying them with email solicitations. On the surface this would seem to be the preferred method of annoyance.

However, I could not find any information regarding the relative costs of the methodology that they prefer. As I said, the bits on the internet are close to free, while postage for mail delivered by the postal service has a definite finite cost per solicitation. And since bits are basically free, forty times free is still free, so based on this type of cost – benefit logic, I think it is safe to assume that we will all continue to enjoy the multitude of unsolicited opportunities that appear in our email mailboxes for some time. Despite what appears to be a response and acceptance level that seems to be trending asymptotically close to zero.

It just means that the internet emailers need to reach out to forty times as many people as the non-emailers, to get the same number of respondents. And since the emails are essentially free, that is what they do. Hence the deluge of spam emails.

A little further research has shown me that by law, all of these opportunity suppliers, or Spammers for short, must provide the ability for those receiving their messages to be able to opt out from receiving future opportunity notices.
https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2015/08/candid-answers-can-spam-questions

What I also discovered during this research is that there now appears to be another burgeoning industry opportunity on the business horizon. This one involves services that purport to be able to remove you from these email opportunity lists for you. For just a small fee, of course.

I now fully expect to start receiving email solicitations from these spam removal services, unsolicited of course, asking me to sign up for their service so that I will no longer have to receive unwanted emails from all the other internet people trying get me to attend webinars and seminars, or sell me things like spam removal services.

Gosh, I do appreciate email.

Inspiration

Inspiration is that magic elixir that enables us to be better. Without it, we would continue to just be what we currently are. It allows us to be cheaper, better and faster. It is how the better mouse trap is conceived and created. It is how we beat the competition at their own game. When we have it we can change the course of our business for the better. When we don’t we are forced to fall back on the plodding methodology of the current process. The good are always looking for inspiration. The great know where it is.

I was sitting waiting for inspiration to strike me so that I could start on my next article. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Still nothing.

Regardless, I figured I had better get started. Since I was currently lacking it, I would examine it. What is inspiration? As usual, I started looking for it on Google:

“in·spi·ra·tion
inspəˈrāSH(ə)n
noun: inspiration
the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”

Okay. I now recognized that there is a link between inspiration and creativity. However, I was still waiting for it to hit me.

Then I remembered that it was opportunity that knocks, not inspiration.

I decided that if I was going to be inspired enough to write something worthwhile, I was going to have to go look for it. It wasn’t just going to come to me. At least this not time.

Normally both current and past business events have a way of bubbling up within my psyche to enable me to look at them and share them here. Sometimes it is easier than others. Sometimes, not. This time however, no luck at all.

There are a great many things going on both in business and on the global stage, and in the past I have tried to capture some of these ideas and concepts, and both the current and past events associated with them. But none of the ones that I looked at seemed to resonate with me.

I don’t know if it was the World Cup entering the final stages (since I would not consider myself a real fan), or the NHL draft and ensuing free agency (since I would consider myself a real fan), but “it”, whatever it is, just wasn’t there. I would get a line or two into an idea and then become disenchanted, or uninspired.

This sad state of affairs is not the normal situation for me. Those who know me will be the first to say that I will usually have something to say about almost anything. It is far more difficult to get me to refrain from commenting than it is to get me to say something.

I am fond of quoting Ron White, the Texas based comedian, who once said when he was being arrested:

“I know I have the right to remain silent. I just don’t have the ability to remain silent.”

I think he has actually said it multiple times, since it has become a part of his stage act, but I think you get my point.

This time however, I just couldn’t find something that felt worthwhile to share here and comment on.

What I was missing here was that I was thinking that inspiration was something that came from without. It either “came” to you, or you went looking for it. In general, at least for me, I don’t think that this is the case. And, I think that for the most part it is probably not the case for most others as well.

We have a tendency to think that the event, action or activity that triggers our inspiration, is the source of our inspiration. I don’t think this is the case at all. It is merely a trigger. Something that causes us to take what we already think, know and feel, and bring it to the surface and recombine it in a new way.

Inspiration actually lies within.

Steve Jobs said:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

I think too often we rely on external queues for our inspiration. We want to follow the process for something that by its very nature does not lend itself to process.

We in effect, are trying to schedule our spontaneity.

And what we should all know by now is that “the process”, actually almost any process, does not lend itself to spontaneity, creativity or inspiration. Process is designed to reduce risk and replace judgement. Both of which are required for inspiration.

Getting back to Steve Jobs for a moment. He was recognized as one of the most inspired people in business. He “knew” and “saw” how his products should be, well before they were ever created. He demanded that they meet his inspirational expectations. He anticipated and created markets, instead of chasing them.

But don’t confuse being inspired with being inspirational. By all accounts, Jobs was not a particularly inspirational leader. The quotes regarding his management style range from:

“…It is well-known that Steve Jobs could be arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-spirited….”
www.business.rutgers.edu/business-insights/leadership-steve-jobs

To:

“…Steve Jobs is … a man who shouted down colleagues at meetings, was visibly impatient and dismissive of others’ contributions… and yet he is lauded as perhaps the most successful entrepreneur of his generation….”
https://www.bbc.com/news/business-34604387

I guess this means that you can act this way as long as you are right. But be wrong, just once, as Jobs inevitably was, and that behavior will come back to haunt you. This was seen when he was ousted from Apple.

As we know, he would eventually come back and experience even greater success.

So where did Jobs’ inspiration come from?

With a personality such as his, I think it obviously came from within. He made the connections intuitively and then drove the technologists, and the rest of his team to fulfill them. He was inspired, but he was not inspirational.

Every analysis and business review, seems to confirm this. He was an anomaly as a business leader. He did not lead his team. He drove his people. He demanded of his team. He invariably used the stick, instead of the carrot.

Most of us do not have the option of behaving the way Jobs did. But we can learn about inspiration from him.

He was able to make the intuitive connections that enabled him to see a better way of doing things. To see new products that would be needed and wanted, before others, including the prospective customers. To step outside of the current processes and procedures to make those quantum improvements.

It came from within him. The triggers were the current way things were done, and the current products that were being provided. He didn’t particularly try to make the current products better. He tried to make something else.

He looked at the way things were to establish a baseline. He looked within for his inspiration regarding what he thought they should be in the future.

I don’t really want to get to philosophical here. I was just trying to find the inspiration for a new article topic, and got to thinking about where inspiration came from. When I got to thinking about it enough, it then hit me, and voila, I had my new topic and article.

C.O.T.S.

It has long been known that just about everyone thinks that they can build a better mouse trap. Indeed, several in fact have. That is where innovation comes from. By building something better than what currently exists, a competitive advantage is created. It is usually a short-lived advantage as there are many others that are always also trying to innovate as well, who will either copy, or actually improve on the new design.

Add to this, the question of whether you should actually make your own better mouse trap, or buy someone else’s better mouse trap, and you have the makings for a reasonably spirited discussion. Remember, not everyone is in the same mouse trap business. So, do you invest in developing your own, or do you just go out and buy somebody else’s, already complete? However, when it comes to your own business systems, processes and tools, the decision should be very simple.

Unless you are in the tool and system business, never, ever, ever make your own tools and systems.

The tools and systems within an organization usually fall under the purview of the Information Technologies (IT) group (or some derivative thereof). The IT group can be staffed with some of the finest and brightest people in the organization. But everyone must remember, that unless you are in the IT services, tools and application development business, that is not the business that the organization as a whole is in. IT is then not directly associated with the products and services that the company positions as best in class and sell to its customers. It doesn’t develop them. It doesn’t sell them.

If IT based tools and systems are not the organization’s prime business, then investing in their custom development should never make sense. IT should then be treated as an administrative expense that is required to be spent in order for the organization to maximally leverage the available technology in the pursuit of its business goals, not a tools and systems development organization.

With this definition and positioning of IT in mind, I’ll now delve into the issues that almost every organization now faces when it comes to leveraging available technologies and how to be more efficient at it.

Over (a long) time I have had the opportunity to witness several different businesses and organizations try to utilize their product development capabilities to develop what has come to be known a “Multi-Tool Product”. This is a product that is supposed to do everything. It is designed to be all things to all customers. Instead of buying four different devices to serve four different purposes, you can buy one device to do all four.

And every time I have witnessed this type of product development attempt, I have witnessed what can best be described as failure, and worst described as abject failure.

There are two primary reasons for this type of Development failure:
1. The time and expense associated with this type of development is always, always much longer, much more complicated and much more expensive than ever budgeted or even imagined.
2. The functionality of the multi-tool product is never, ever good enough, nor delivers enough value to unseat the individual discrete products that it is competing against.

I like to tell the story of attending a multi-tool product development review some many years ago. The review was opened by the product manager stating that it had been eight weeks since our last formal review, and that unfortunately due to unforeseen development complexities, product availability had slipped twelve weeks in that time.

I commented that since it seemed that we were now falling behind faster than time was passing, that the only logical thing to do was cease development now so as to fall no further behind.

I was never invited back to another one of those product reviews.

The product however, was never completed nor released. It was quietly shelved many months, and millions of dollars later.

As to multi-tool product functionality. It may be time for another Gobeli Postulate on Product Development. It goes:

1. A product that is purported to be able to do everything, will do nothing very well.

Individually developed products are each optimized for value and performance. They are targeted at being the “best in class”. Multi-tool products by their very structures cannot match this. Each individual capability in a multi-tool product must carry the product cost and functionality overhead of every other capability in the multi-tool product.

This is equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife example. It may have a knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors, but none of those attributes are as good in comparison to a separate standalone knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors. And you must pay the added expense of the housing and overhead that is required to combine them all into one device. Invariably the four different best of breed items can be bought for less than the single, less functionally capable multi-tool product.

Okay, so what has all this got to do with IT?

Part of the average IT group’s responsibility is to create / select tools that will enhance the systems and automation of the business organization, their customers. It must be remembered that IT is a support group. They exist to provide functionality to the business.

This is contrary to some IT departments I have witnessed who appeared to believe the business existed in order to fund them.

Most internal (not out-sourced) IT tools groups think that they can create tools, capabilities and applications that are far better than what can be purchased in the market. They believe this due to their increased knowledge and proximity to their very business specific support needs. It is their focus to create tools and systems that deliver ever greater functionality and capability to an ever-greater number of people.

In short, they believe they can create better Multi-tools.

This is not always the case, but I think we can all probably remember instances where a perfectly functional and eminently usable tool was replaced in the name of “integration” by a tool that had greater integration with other systems, but lower functionality than the tool it replaced.

So here is where we get to the Title of this article: C.O.T.S. – Commercial Off The Shelf.

“Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, without the need to commission custom-made, … solutions … Although COTS products can be used out of the box, in practice the COTS product must be configured to achieve the needs of the business and integrated to existing organizational systems.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_off-the-shelf

Please take note of the word “configured” in the above definition. It does not say “customized”. IT provided tools and systems should be configurable to handle multiple applications across different business groups. They should not be customized into different discrete tools to address each group.

There are organizations in existence whose business model is to create tools for other companies and organizations. In order for them to grow and flourish they must create best in breed tools for their specific applications. They cannot create all the tools. Only those types of tools that they are experts in.

That means that in order to get a full suite of tools to address all the business needs of the organization that the IT group serves, they will need to deal with multiple tool supplying organizations.

IT is usually a technology oriented group. External tool providing companies will usually provide tools much faster, better, cheaper and with greater functionality than anything that an internal tools group could create. However, working and negotiating with external businesses is not very technical in nature, which is somewhat out of alignment with the desired direction of most IT Tools groups.

They want to create and develop. Not negotiate and buy.

Many companies have created their competitive advantage by developing their own “better mouse trap”. This self-reliant development mentality can easily bleed over into the IT group when it comes to the tools and systems. Senior management can also be receptive to the IT tool and system development siren song, since that is how they were able to achieve success as a business.

However, management needs to remember that regardless of what they may think, or be told by IT, their business systems and tools needs are probably not so unique as to require custom tool development, but more likely just need the proper configuration of a C.O.T.S., best in breed, already available tool or system. This solution direction will invariably lead to simpler and faster implementations, as well as a lower cost of ownership and sustainment across the commercial life time of the tool.

IT will almost always be the owner of the make / buy analysis when it comes to tools. Building your own multi-tools will almost always be a slower, more expensive and lower functionality alternative to buying C.O.T.S., regardless of what the IT tool development group may want or think. Especially if your business is not the tool and system business.

Responsibility and Execution

As we move up through management it is our expectation that our responsibilities will increase. We have demonstrated that we can not only handle the responsibilities of our current assignments, but that we can actually handle more. There is also a second axis that is applied along with the responsibility axis when it comes time for personal analysis: the execution axis. Being able to handle increased responsibility, but not being able to execute those responsibilities at an equally high level, or being able to execute at a high level, but not being able to handle the increased responsibilities, will provide you the opportunity to remain where you are and address those aspects of your performance that need work. It is only when both Responsibility and Execution are present at high levels that you get to move on.

I talked last time about Adversity and how my son has dealt with and overcame his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis a year ago. Now I’m going to look at how he has done it, and what I have learned from watching him.

Most of us get to grow into our responsibilities and learn how to properly execute on them. Admittedly, some are faster learners than others. My son didn’t get the benefit of a learning curve. He didn’t get to grow into his Diabetic responsibilities. One day he is a normal eighteen year old, finishing his last year in high school. The next he is a Type 1 Diabetic, with a daily set of responsibilities, the execution of which affect both his quality of life, as well as his life expectancy.

Talk about having to grow into your responsibilities and learning to execute fast.

Prior to his diagnosis, Diabetes was sort of an abstract concept to me. I knew about it. I even knew a few people that lived with it. When it became real in a personal way, I too had to learn about it.

In business, few of us get to start at the top, with all the responsibilities and the requirement for continuous high quality execution. I suppose there are a few, particularly in privately held organizations, but I think even these have a sort of apprenticeship that comes from being “in the family” and growing up with the transition to be expected.

For most of us we start at relatively junior levels, learn, grow and prove ourselves over time. Situations, environments and even a certain amount of luck come into play. You may be highly skilled but in a mature to stagnant organization or industry that provides a relatively limited number of advancement opportunities. On the other hand, you may be in a growing industry where the opportunities are plentiful.

Good performance and learning the desired behaviors and execution can provide the opportunity for increased responsibility. This increased responsibility is usually built on, or an expansion of the previous role’s responsibilities. This means that you at least usually have a pretty good idea of how to execute on a portion of your new responsibilities.

This is the usual progression. In a new role, build on what you know and have already learned, and leverage it for the new responsibilities and execution of them. If you show the desire, willingness and ability to do this within reasonable time frames and expectations, then future expanded responsibility roles can be available.

Jesse Owens, the four-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Germany, said:

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”

I think it is safe to say that those games were not his first competition. He trained for a long time. There is no question that he worked hard. He learned and worked his way up through many smaller, and then increasing larger competitions, before achieving his most notable success.

I don’t think there are any smaller competitions, or learning opportunities for my son, or other Diabetics for that matter. One day you are fine. The next you have Diabetes and now are responsible for potentially life altering decisions, usually multiple times a day. There is no previous assignment to lean on or utilize as a jumping off point for your new role in life. It truly is a sink or swim moment.

If you provide your body too much insulin, it can result in Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

“Low blood sugar levels can cause a variety of problems within your central nervous system. Early symptoms include weakness, lightheadedness, and dizziness. … Severe low blood sugar is sometimes called insulin shock. Untreated, it can be very dangerous, resulting in seizures, loss of consciousness, or death” https://www.healthline.com/health/low-blood-sugar-effects-on-body

If you don’t provide your body with enough insulin, it can result in Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).

“Hyperglycemia is a defining characteristic of diabetes—when the blood glucose level is too high because the body isn’t properly using or doesn’t make the hormone insulin….You get glucose from the foods you eat. Carbohydrates, such as fruit, milk, potatoes, bread, and rice, are the biggest source of glucose in a typical diet….If you have type 1 diabetes, it is important to recognize and treat hyperglycemia because if left untreated it can lead to ketoacidosis. This happens because without glucose, the body’s cells must use ketones (toxic acids) as a source of energy. Ketoacidosis develops when ketones build up in the blood. It can become serious and lead to diabetic coma or even death.”

In business if we do not live up to and execute on our responsibilities, we may end up having some of them taken away from us. If my son provided too much or too little insulin as part of his responsibilities, he could die.

Talk about a negatively reinforced incentive plan.

Normally incentive plans are structured to inspire better performance. To strive. To achieve. We focus on the upside and the opportunity.

His incentive plan has no upside. He will always have Diabetes, regardless of how well he manages it. Or at least he will have it if and until ever a cure is found. On the downside, as I just noted, failure to either execute or accept this responsibility, has a significantly more impactful, and detrimental result.

I have commented on the fact that matrix organizations can have a separation of responsibility, accountability and authority. Accountability and authority reside with the person that is answerable to the task in question. Responsibility resides with the person that must actually accomplish the task. A very simple example of this structure would be when Captain Kirk on Star Trek decides on a course for the Enterprise to take (the accountable authority), and then assigns plotting, navigation and implementation of the course to the navigator (usually Mr. Zulu – the responsible party).

I am not sure of who the appropriate parties would be in this example with Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or any of the other spin-offs. I don’t think I ever really watched them.

In dealing with his Diabetes, my son is responsible, accountable and the authority. He decides what he eats. He tests his blood glucose levels. He decides on and administers the appropriate amount of insulin.

There is no question. He has the responsibility, and must execute at a high level, for the rest of his life. He started in the role, and will remain with it.

Fortunately, he has accepted the responsibility. He doesn’t complain about others with less, or different responsibilities. He knows what he has to do, and isn’t shying away from it. It comes with his new role in life.

He is also executing, continuously at a very high level. His blood tests and doctor’s visits all indicate he has his disease well under control. He is healthy and continues to thrive, much like any other nineteen year old without diabetes. He doesn’t use it as an excuse, or ask for any special treatment (although he is entitled to under the American Disabilities Act).

He just works hard at the tasks he has in front of him and adds the responsibility and execution of his diabetic requirements to his daily agenda.

He has accepted these new responsibilities (even though he definitely did not ask for them), and he is executing on them to the best of his ability. I think his best has far exceeded our hopes and expectations. I am confident that he has learned how to cope with this and any potential future increases in responsibility, and that he will execute on them with the same focus and high levels that he has handled these.

I am immensely proud of the way he has handled it. I don’t know if I could do as well at his age, or any age for that matter.

I continue to watch and learn from him.

Adversity

There are very few among us who get to go through their professional careers without having to deal with some sort of adversity. I think this is pretty much a given. To be trite to the point that it almost pains me to type it, it is how we deal with this adversity that separates the truly top end from the rest of us. Sometimes dealing with this adversity has the added benefit of providing us with something called perspective.

This one is already becoming difficult for me. I think you will understand when I get into why in a little while.

When we think of adversity we normally can think about things such as difficult market conditions. Especially if you are associated with any sort of equipment or infrastructure sales in today’s capital constricted markets. Adversity can take the form of a difficult boss. I like to think about the pointy-haired fellow in the Dilbert comics by Scott Adams. Adversity can take the form of a difficult assignment, or the requirement to find your next assignment or even the next job. Obviously, adversity comes in many forms.

To one extent or another I think we have all been there. All of these examples (and many others) constitute difficult environments and situations to either find yourself in, or experience. They require a certain amount of fortitude and focus to get through. But that is just the point. They are situations to get through. With work, focus, effort and the proper attitude they can be traversed.

I think that deep down we all understand that, even when we find ourselves in those uncomfortable places. We should focus on the resolution, and finding our way to it. It is only when we take our eyes, and minds off of this goal that we run the risk of a longer-term failure as opposed to a shorter-term set-back. Still, I think we have all seen it happen.

I might get into mind-sets and methods of dealing with this type of adversity at another time as well.

I’m going to talk about a different type of adversity.

One year ago, today, my eighteen year old son was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes.

Now we are talking adversity.

Admittedly it is not as much as many face and endure, but it also has added a great deal of perspective for me when it comes to talking about and dealing with things in the professional world.

Most of the time I talk about issues, topics and observations in the first person, and what I have done, either correctly or incorrectly in dealing with them. However, this is one where I can’t. It didn’t happen to me. It happened to him. For whatever reason, his pancreas stopped creating insulin. Mine still does. His doesn’t.

I like to think of myself as a leader. Someone who solves problems. But this was one issue that I couldn’t find a resolution for.

“Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Usually, the body’s own immune system — which normally fights harmful bacteria and viruses — mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing (islet, or islets of Langerhans) cells in the pancreas.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-1-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20353011

Every time we eat our bodies break down the consumed food into components that are used to sustain our bodies. One of the key ones, as noted above, is sugar to produce energy. Diabetes inhibits this process.

A little more than a year ago, we noticed that our son was losing weight, was getting lethargic and was drinking a ton of water. I credit my wife with spotting the symptoms first. At this point he was almost six feet tall, and weighed close to one hundred and twenty-five pounds. We got him into the doctor, and then we got the diagnosis.

After two nights in the emergency room on an insulin drip to get his blood-sugar down to an acceptable number, he was discharged and set out to deal with the adversity of being a diabetic – for the rest of his life.

This was not a temporary set-back. This is forever, for him. I had broken bones, dealt with various sicknesses, had bad bosses, and looked for new jobs, and all other sorts of set-backs. I think as I said, deep down I knew these adversities would pass.

He was dealing with his first real adversity, and it wasn’t going to pass.

As a parent, and the nominal leader in our house (Make no mistakes here. I like to think of myself as the leader, someone who solves issues, however my wife is the “boss”. I refer to her as “The most powerful woman in the universe”. At least in my universe.) this was something that I could not fix or resolve. I had to recalibrate how I dealt with this since it was by no means going to be temporary.

But I am a reasonably experienced individual. I’ve been around. I’ve gone through a lot.

My son was just eighteen. He was finishing his senior year of high school. He was already accepted into a good university. This was supposed to be a great time in someone’s life. The rites of passage. The beginning of the transition to adulthood. The last of the truly carefree times in life.

I don’t quite know what he thought, but I thought it was unfair.

I watched for any telltale signs on how he was taking this. He had gone from being able to eat, drink and do anything, like any other teenager, to having to be totally aware of what he was eating, drinking and doing, in order to maintain a healthy blood-sugar level.

What I watched as time passed, both astounded me, and made me proud.

It astounded me in that I didn’t see any changes in my kid. I was angry at the randomness and injustice of this, but he wasn’t. He was the same laid-back and happy guy that I have always known. He was facing adversity and not letting it change who he was, and is.

I was proud in that when I asked him about it, he was philosophical about it, and it seemed to be way beyond his years to me. He said he decided he wasn’t going to change because he now had diabetes. He would still eat, drink and do what he wanted, but he would now just add monitoring his blood sugar to the process.

I was proud of him in the way he was dealing with it. He said that at first, he was angry, but then he realized that being angry wasn’t going to change his situation. It was something that happened. He realized he couldn’t change it. So, he had quickly come to terms with it. And besides, he really wasn’t the angry type.

I was still angry. I probably still am, to some extent, even a year later.

Here was an eighteen year old who had never faced any adversity to speak of, let alone adversity of this type, basically schooling me on how to handle it. Here I was, someone who had gone through the highs and lows of business, the lay-offs and the promotions, pretty much all of it, and I was learning from him a perspective that in retrospect I probably should have had, to one level or another from the beginning.

He is now nineteen years old, and has finished his first year of college. He is still a diabetic, but he has put the weight back on and is now a healthy, but slender six feet tall and one hundred and sixty pounds. It is still an adversity that he has to face that will never go away, unless a cure is one day found.

We have tried to automate and simplify his regimens with the addition of Constant Glucose Monitors (CGM) and Insulin Pumps that are attached to him so that he no longer has to prick his finger to test his blood, nor use a syringe to inject the required doses of insulin.

Adversity comes in many forms. I don’t want to try and equate the adversity that occurs in business with real adversity. I learned this through watching someone I really cared for come to grips with and deal with the adversity that he faced. I also saw that although I thought what he faced was great, there were those that faced even greater adversities, many of which might not be able to be dealt with, and in many instances despite all efforts might have to be accepted on an even more painful level.

I was going to end this with some nice quote about adversity. None of them felt right, when looking at the adversity that is faced in business when compared to my son. I think this has to do with my perspective that has been gained relative to adversity. I’ll go in a little bit different, but not entirely unrelated direction here. Charles Swindoll said:

“Life is 10% what happens, and 90% how you react to it.”

If that’s the case I think my son is going to do pretty well in business, as well as in life. And I think I have learned a lot about how to deal with adversity from him.

When Metrics Fail

It has long been known in business that you should “Inspect what you expect”. This basically means that if you want to achieve a certain goal, or engender a specific behavior, you need to establish metrics associated with that objective. Then you need to monitor and measure the progress toward that objective.

After all, it has also been known in business that “Data is your friend”. The idea of gathering unbiased information regarding the progress toward the business goals and objectives has also been acknowledged as a path to success.

So, if you have the metrics, and you have the data, everything should be great, right?

Not so fast.

In these days of quantifiable objectives and unbiased measurements, with customer service taking an ever-higher pedestal in the pantheon of business goals, why is it that service satisfaction seems to be taking a nose dive instead of soaring to new heights?

I think the answer is simple, and it directly relates to the first item above: Inspect what you expect. Unless businesses are very careful when they set their goals and objectives, they will incite an employee behavior to manage to the metrics, instead of the business objectives. To illustrate this behavior and resulting customer satisfaction failure, I will regale you with my own personal travails though the metrics mess.

Since the advent of mobile phones, I think it is safe to say that just about every business person has had a business mobile phone. Across this mobile communications time-scape I have had the bad fortune to break exactly one of my business phones, to the point of requiring a replacement phone.

Personally, I think this is a pretty good record. I know of several of my colleagues across this period that are well into double digits on the number of phones they have broken and replaced.

In any event once broken, I then started the process of trying to get a replacement phone.

As with most organizations, there was a corporate “Help” line available to call should there be a connectivity issue. I called it. They answered right away. I asked my questions regarding where to go to start the replacement phone process. They directed me to the appropriate organizational web site.

Up to this point, this has been a really good service experience.

Time passed and I then accessed the replacement program and filled out the then required information and submitted it. I got an error message. It didn’t tell me what was wrong with my phone replacement application, only that it was wrong. I searched the rest of the page and found a help number (different from the first help number) and called.

They took my information and opened a trouble ticket, and told me they would get back to me.

Fifteen minutes later I received an email providing another URL directing me to another tool for phone replacements, and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

Time passed and I then went to the new location, filled out another form and requested a replacement phone. Now I received a different error message, but again, no information on how to resolve the error. I again searched the rest of the page and found a help number (different from the first help number, and the second help number) and called.

They too took my information and opened a trouble ticket, and told me they would get back to me.

Another short time later I received another email providing the URL of the original Help line directing me to talk with them since they were actually in mid-conversion of the on-line business phone procurement tool and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

As you might guess, my opinion of the quality of the service experience was eroding quickly.

Time continued to pass and I then re-called the original Help number and informed them of the circular cycle I had just been through, and again asked for their help. They said that they would look into it and then opened yet another trouble ticket.

Again as you might guess, I soon received another email confirming that there was indeed a conversion going on within the systems and that I would have to wait until it was over to order a replacement telephone, and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

Now, I will get to the resolution of this phone replacement story in a little bit, but I am using it here to illustrate the issue that metrics can create. It was quite obvious that the metric that mattered most to the “Help” entities was how quickly they closed the trouble ticket once it was opened.

This metric mattered so much in their requirement set that it was all they focused on. I had opened multiple trouble tickets for the exact same issue, with multiple entities, some of them multiple times. They had closed every one of the tickets that I had opened quickly and efficiently.

And after all that time and effort, I still didn’t have a replacement phone. They had not solved my problem. Their metrics probably looked great. Their customer satisfaction, at least in my particular instance was close to non-existent.

Someone had obviously associated rapid closure of trouble tickets with increased customer satisfaction. In light of this correlation, they created a set of objectives and accompanying metrics around this topic. Goals were set. And associated behaviors were adjusted to this new arrangement. The tickets were indeed closed quickly.

And it was obvious that they learned that “usually” closing a trouble ticket quickly resulted in increased customer satisfaction. Closing multiple trouble tickets for the same issue quickly, but not solving the underlying issue resulted in the exact opposite. I was not anywhere close to satisfied.

By the way, I could not make this story up. This actually did happen to me some time back. It is kind of humorous in retrospect, however at the time I was not especially amused.

Getting back the resolution about how I eventually got a replacement phone, when everyone thought that they had done their job, yet there was no method for me to get a phone.

Most companies when they think they have done a good job like to issue customer surveys, just to make sure that they have done a good job. This sort of customer feedback looks good when it comes time to report on the group’s performance at the end of the year.

They sent me a customer satisfaction survey.

They asked that since all my tickets were closed so quickly if I was nearly as delighted as they thought I should be.

I told them “no”, and graded them “Zero” out of five on every metric, and submitted it. I in effect told them they stunk.

I like to think that once my survey hit their inbox with such low scores, that something akin to the “red button” was hit (along the lines of the one in the movie “Ghostbusters” – the first one, not the sequel) where the alarm rings and everyone comes running.

Within a couple of hours of sending it in, I received a call from the help group manager. He asked if he could set up a call to understand what my issues were. I agreed, but only if he brought in the other two help groups I had unsuccessfully interfaced with as well. He said he would.

Believe it or not, weeks had passed since I started the process of trying to replace my phone. What should have been a relatively simple exercise had now stretched out to the point where I was have a conference call with more than a dozen people who were trying to understand how I could be so wrong about the quality of their support services.

During the call I did agree with all of them that they had indeed closed all the trouble tickets I had opened quite promptly. I commended them for this obviously herculean effort.

I then informed them that the objective here was for me to get a new mobile phone, not to get my trouble tickets closed so quickly. I wouldn’t have minded that they were closed so quickly, if I had in fact achieved my objective, which was to get a new phone. And at this point, as of this conference call, I still didn’t have one.

There was what I could only have described as stunned silence on the call.

The actual final solution to the issue was to have the director responsible for the company phone services, who was on the call trying to understand what went wrong with the process, to personally order a phone for me. He did, and I received it two days later.

I think I should have called him directly in the first place.

Aligning goals and the accompanying metrics can be a tricky business. Leaders need to understand that just because all of the so-called metrics have been met, doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well in the business. Metrics tend to replace the actual business goals and objectives, since it is the metrics that people usually get measured against.

Understanding the metric alignment with the organizational objectives will be crucial in avoiding those instances where the metrics indicate one thing, while reality demonstrates something entirely different. It is always good to remember that having data is good, but that metrics, if not properly understood, can fail.

Globalization and Regionalization

I have had the opportunity to work for several different organizations in both global roles and regional roles. They are as diverse in their approaches to business as they are different in their drivers. As Captain Obvious might say “Well, duh”. However, I thought I might spend a little time looking at why they are so different. What factors contribute to what appears to be an ongoing, never ending conflict of business imperatives between the global business and the regional business unit.

Global businesses are driven to try and do everything only once. That means they try to create single products that can be sold and implemented in multiple regions. The same would also be true of their services. Global businesses try to create single business processes and business structures. They then try to make the regional business units fit this ideal as closely as possible.

This is all based on the global business’ desire to minimize costs and associated overheads.

If you can do things only once, you don’t have to put multiple products, or redundant business support infrastructures in place. This keeps your costs down.

It is also a very internally focused approach to doing business. As we have all seen, when your internal drivers outpace your customer focus, you are probably in for some difficult times in the very near future as your competition outplays you in the customer environment.

Regional business units are usually put in place to deal with a specific (regional) customer set. This can usually be due to language, regulatory, cultural, or any number of other factors associated with and specific to that region. By their very nature, and the limited customer set that the regional organization focuses on, they are primarily externally focused. They want products and services that have been specifically modified and adapted to their specific customers’ desires.

As we have all seen, when your customer focus overwhelms your internal cost concerns you are also probably in for some difficult times as your costs and support issues drive your profitability down.

I think herein lies the root of the “push-me, pull-you” issue between global and regional organizations. Global organizations want minimal diversification of their products, services and processes in order to keep the associated costs at a minimum, while regional organizations want multiple, specific customer and cultural variations that directly relate to their specific customers.

So, what can be done?

Sometimes one of the regions emerges as the “lead” region for the organization. Again, usually, but not always the lead region is the region where the global organization is located. This is the region where the provided product or service gets the most traction, or generates the most revenue. This “lead region” has a tendency to create a resonant “do loop”.

The lead region provides its input to the global organization as to the customer specific variations that they need or want, and the global organization responds to them first since they are generating the most return for the organization’s investment expense. Since the global organization wants to minimize the total number of variations that they must support, the other regions are usually left to try and adapt to the lead region requirements.

Customers within in the dominant region get their requests responded to first and hence maintain their lead position by then making the purchase decision, where the other regions’ and their customer specific requests are forced to wait, if they receive their requests at all. Since there is always competition in every region, those customers within the secondary regions tend to remain smaller since their product and service requests are not met as well or as quickly as those of customers in the dominant region. The secondary region customers have a tendency to utilize other suppliers if they wish to have their needs met on a level that more closely meets their needs.

This phenomenon is equally applicable to both the customer product (external and customer requirements) and business process (internal and cost directives) associated with both the regional and global organizations.

While Darwin was a champion of the survival of the fittest, that is little consolation to the secondary region within a global organization, when it is simultaneously told to grow, but cannot get the regional specific needs of their customers, or business processes quickly or adequately addressed.

As an example, there are few things more ubiquitous in the business world today than the laptop or personal computer. Everybody has one. And size matters. But not how you might at first suspect. In the business world, the smaller the laptop computer an executive has, the more important they are. The really important people do not carry a laptop at all. They have someone who carries it for them.

But I digress….

Instead of making country specific laptops and computers, vendors make a generic computer with country specific plugs and charger cords, since very few countries enjoy using the same wall outlets or power structures. They have a global product with specific regional, or country adapters. It works great.

Unless you take your laptop to another country. Then you need another adapter.

What I’m getting at here is that even something as ubiquitous as the laptop needs to be adapted to almost every region and country. And when a laptop that was designed for one region is taken into a different region, it needs another adapter.

I think that sort of implies that almost every other product, service or process will probably need the same type of adaptation treatment for each of its targeted regions.

On the other side of this argument, it can be said that not every country has a market opportunity sufficient to support its own specific product or process set. It is in these types of instances that again as Captain Obvious would again say “well, duh”. Hence, relatively similar countries get grouped into regions where similar market characteristics can be addressed.

This doesn’t mean that they are all the same. Just similar. We all know the basic beak-downs, North America, Latin / South America, Europe, etc. Within these regions we might see some further specification such as Caribbean or Southern Cone in the Latin American region, or Benelux and Scandinavia in Europe.

So why all this grouping and sub-grouping of regions and their respective organizations? Partly to reduce redundancy and overlap of cost structures, but also to more clearly enable what should be that bastion of business, the business case.

By accreting organizations upwards, (hopefully) business cases can be made for the appropriate level of diversification / specification of the products, services and processes to specifically service that region. Or at least one would hope that this is the case.

Again, the problem here will be that the business cases of the lead region / country will almost always be stronger than even those of the secondary regions. So, what can be done?

The solution will lie with the business focus.

If the business focus is on cost containment, increased profitability and process unification, the needs and desires of the regions will be deprioritized in favor of global approaches and processes in the name of cost containment and simplification. This will normally be the case with both “cash cow” and lower margin businesses. Businesses associated with older technology products as well as businesses associated with services will usually try to drive to this one size / one process fits all reduced investment and increased earnings optimal state.

In this case, the desires and needs of the lead region will probably drive the directions and processes of the entire global business.

If the business focus is on revenue growth, that means specific customer requests and requirements must be responded to in order to obtain the desired customer commitments. This means the specific needs of each region will need to be addressed within the global organization plan. Prioritizations regarding which customer demands are responded to first will still be made, but there will be an extensive set of delivery plans to make sure as many specific regional requests as possible are met within the desired time frames.

The net result of globalization versus regionalization is that neither organization will ever be entirely happy. Regional business units will never get all that they want in the way of customized products, services and processes that are adapted to their specific needs. Global businesses will never be able to get their one size fits all cost utopia. There will always be a spectrum along which these items will lie.

The more internal the focus of the topic or the business, the more globalized the approach. This seems to particularly be the direction for anything associated with internal organizational systems and processes.

Businesses associated with older technology will probably also find themselves with less R&D funding available for region specific developments, as that funding will probably be utilized on newer products.

Services businesses, which normally also operate on a lower margin business case will also probably find themselves trying to regionally find a way to adapt as closely the one size fits all approach of the global structure as possible.

It will probably be only those high growth or high margin businesses that will enjoy the opportunity to access full customer responsive regionalization. This will normally be because they are the only types of products (and services) that can afford the investments that regionalization requires.

This further supports the golden rule of business: Those regions that deliver the gold, get to make the global rules.