Engineering Solutions

There can be no question that engineers are one of the cornerstones of any successful technology oriented business organization. It doesn’t matter if they are hardware, software, electrical, mechanical, chemical or even civil engineers. Their role and importance cannot be overstated. We need to be very clear about that. I will try to walk the fine line of discussing the work of engineers in business without sliding into the realm of picking on engineers in business. Wish me luck.

It has been said:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

The origin of this quote is attributed to two wildly different sources: Voltaire, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and Uncle Ben, the Spiderman character, not the instant rice one. Both are acknowledged as saying something close but not quite like this, hence the somewhat open-ended attribution.

If I have a choice I’m going with Uncle ben. Just because I haven’t seen that many entertaining movies about Voltaire and the French Enlightenment. However, I am sure that Marvel Comics will eventually get around to it. Probably after Thor – Thirteen, or some such time.

Mark Twain however, is widely acknowledged as the source of this quote:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I believe the modern technology equivalent of this statement is now:

“To an engineer, every question looks like it needs an engineering solution.”

Herein is where we get to the topic of engineering solutions. Engineers have a great power and responsibility when it comes to finding solutions to today’s customer based technological opportunities. A solution usually cannot be created, or implemented without them. Somebody usually has to put them together, and that somebody is usually an engineer.

Engineers have been trained starting in school to create the best solution. It usually entails a single variable. The strongest solution. The highest. The most secure. The longest. The tallest. Very seldom is there a scale or constraint added where there is some sort of trade off versus another variable. This can have a tendency to be the mindset that engineers use when creating real world solutions.

But even in this high technology, engineering dependent environment, it must be remembered that engineering is only part of the solution, not the entire solution. We are no longer in a time where a president can challenge a country to reach a goal, and the engineers can spend whatever is necessary to reach it. Doing things because they are difficult is a great challenge, but doing them within a budget is even a greater challenge.

About this time, I will have lost all readers that have an engineering degree, an engineering role or even just an engineering predilection. To mention that there are items other than engineering that are important to customer solutions, in their eyes can border on blasphemy. Unfortunately, that is the business world that we now live in. I have talked about this evolution before. It is the transition from the best solution, to the solution that is good enough. This idea is likely to drive engineers crazy.

Little things like money, time and resources must also be taken into account when creating a customer centric solution. This is because, contrary to standard engineering thought, the customer does not necessarily want the best engineered solution. They want the best solution that matches their money, time and resource constraints.

Engineers must be continually reminded of these real-world business constraints: money, time and resources. Otherwise it is not uncommon for them to develop the ultimate engineered solution, that is wholly implausible or unimplementable in the real world. It may be the best technical solution, but there will be very few that can afford to buy and implement it.

When engineering customer solutions, it is best not to think in terms of “absolutes”. Words like the “greatest”, “most” and “best” need modifiers otherwise engineers have a tendency to take them as literal objectives and work to them accordingly. This can result in some of the most elegantly over-engineered solutions imaginable.

Pareto Analysis is a statistical technique in decision-making used for the selection of a limited number of tasks that produce significant overall effect. It uses the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) the idea that by doing 20% of the work you can generate 80% of the benefit of doing the entire job. (https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/pareto-analysis-step-by-step.php)

Many think that it was the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who created the Eighty – Twenty rule. To a certain extent this is somewhat true. Pareto first observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. However, it was management thinker Joseph M. Juran who actually suggested the principle and its far wider applications. Because of Pareto’s observation and work, the technique was named for him. (https://www.entrepreneurs-journey.com/397/80-20-rule-pareto-principle/)

Business, in all its simplest forms, is about investment and return. How much you put in versus how much you get out. This is the basis for employment decisions (if the company thinks that a person will generate more value for the company than the company will have to pay that person in compensation, then the company makes the hiring decision), and it is that way in purchasing decisions (amount paid versus expected return), and it needs to be that way in generating customer solutions.

Customers are not blessed with infinite resources. As I have said, in many instances they cannot afford to pay for what may be considered the “best” solution. Time and money always come into play for them. How much must they pay for each solution? What definable value does the solution generate (reduced costs, increased sales, etc.)? When would they expect to see these returns (the sooner the better)?

Engineers are excellent at the quantifiable. It is the nature of their work. However, if left unchecked they do have a tendency to view costs, time and resources more as “variables” instead of “constraints”. This is where business and leadership reinforcement is required.

When working with engineers, boundaries and constraints are a necessity. An upper limit on costs must be set. This can be in the form of a specific number (The cost cannot exceed…) or a derived relationship (the customer requires a pay-back period of….) based on costs, value generated and specific time frames. This will enable the engineer to modify various combinations of these business variables, but also provide a limiting constraint on the solution.

This customer pay-back period can also be used to help generate the value limit as well. If as Pareto has asserted that first eighty percent of the value can usually be derived with the first twenty percent of the effort, then it should follow that each additional amount of engineering effort (or any effort for that matter) will only provide a continually decreasing return. If the desired customer pay-back is based on returns and time, there is a limit as to what can be engineered within the constraint. Only so much can be done before the cost or pay-back period are exceeded.

It should be noted that not all engineers are so single-mindedly focused on engineering solutions. I have had the opportunity to work with several who understood that good customer solutions are the result of many, sometimes opposing forces in the solution creation process. These are the engineers that have recognized that real world issues and solutions have both a cost and a value associated with them.

A few final comments and observations on the engineering of solutions:

The optimist will look a glass that is half full of water and say that it is indeed half full.

The pessimist will look at the same glass and say that it is in fact half empty.

The engineer will look at it and say the glass is twice as big as it should be, and will set about trying to engineer a smaller glass that will be much more efficient in the holding of that specific amount of water.

Before they are allowed to do that, it is best to check to make sure that the customer wasn’t all that thirsty to begin with, and the amount in the glass is all the water that they wanted at this time. It might actually save more time, money and effort than the solution the engineer would create.

There are probably many engineers that would like to argue this point of view. I have found that for an engineer, the next best thing to trying to engineer the best solution to a problem, is to argue about what is the best engineered solution to a problem. For those of you that have not had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, this is a good time to remember the following quote:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling in the mud with a pig, after a couple of hours you realize the pig likes it.” (anonymous).

Would You Like To Buy The Brooklyn Bridge? – An Infrastructure Sales Story

I have been thinking a lot about infrastructure lately. There are many different types of infrastructure out there. While I am primarily in the High-tech infrastructure environment, almost every other industry has its own type of infrastructure (think oil, airlines, brewing, etc.) and for me, it is hard not to think about things like the Brooklyn bridge when you start talking about infrastructure. I think by way of analogy, I’ll stay with bridges in general and the Brooklyn bridge in particular for this discussion, because it enables me to make the general points I want to make about infrastructure sales and business decisions, and there are a ton of very cool facts that I was able to discover, and hence would like to share.

“The Brooklyn Bridge looms majestically over New York City’s East River, linking the two boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since 1883, its granite towers and steel cables have offered a safe and scenic passage to millions of commuters and tourists, trains and bicycles, pushcarts and cars. The bridge’s construction took 14 years, involved 600 workers and cost $15 million (more than $320 million in today’s dollars). At least two dozen people died in the process, including its original designer. Now more than 125 years old, this iconic feature of the New York City skyline still carries roughly 150,000 vehicles and pedestrians every day.” Or so says History.com. (http://www.history.com/topics/brooklyn-bridge.)

I find this to be very interesting. Here is some infrastructure that was built 135 years ago and is still in service. In fact, it could be said that based on its load and traffic, it is doing more now than it was doing 135 years ago when it was put in service. It cost $320 M in today’s dollars, but probably could not be built for fifty times that ($15 Billion) today. It was basically designed to last 100 years, but at 135 years it is still going strong.

Please note these facts. I will be getting back to them.

When it comes to selling infrastructure, there is one man that historically stands out, head and shoulders above all others: “George C. Parker (March 16, 1860 – 1936) was an American con man best known for his surprisingly successful attempts to “sell” the Brooklyn Bridge. He made his living conducting illegal sales of property he did not own, often New York’s public landmarks, to unwary immigrants. The Brooklyn Bridge was the subject of several of his transactions, predicated on the notion of the buyer controlling access to the bridge. Police removed several of his victims from the bridge as they tried to erect toll booths.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_C._Parker.)

What this teaches us is that if you are going to sell infrastructure it is important to identify the proper customers.

What this also shows is that George was a man who was way ahead of his time. If he was selling infrastructure today he probably would be incredibly successful selling infrastructure to those that are actually in that business, and would not have to spend the last eight years of his life behind bars in Sing Sing prison.

It is also important to understand the engineering associated with some of the existing infrastructure (at least in the US, and probably elsewhere – look at the London Bridge for example), as people go around trying to make a case to replace it. The engineering associated with older infrastructure usually far and away exceeds the stress requirements that were to be placed on it. This probably cannot be said today. As costs have skyrocketed, engineers are now designing and building structures as close to the required loads and specifications as possible in order to keep those costs low. That means they also do not last.

In other words, in the past infrastructure was usually built to last. In addition to old bridges, think about all the pictures in magazines (and on the web) of the old copper pot stills being used at the various breweries (my personal favorite), and bourbon and scotch distilleries. I am sure that all the manufacturers of commercial distillery equipment would like to replace them, but I suspect that also isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Again, looking at our favorite infrastructure example: “(it employed) a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as was thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished or been replaced.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooklyn_Bridge.)

For comparison sakes, a newer piece of infrastructure, the Tappan Zee bridge was put into service, in the same area, about 70 years after the Brooklyn bridge: “As another example, the original Tappan Zee Bridge was opened in 1955, and construction of its replacement is now underway. A 2009 New York state report on the original bridge described its design as “non-redundant,” meaning that one critical component failure could result in large-scale failure; the bridge was featured in a History Channel show entitled “The Crumbling of America.” The new bridge is being designed with a 100-year lifespan; info about the “New NY Bridge” is available” here. (http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/287844/Building+Construction/Lifespan+of+a+Bridge+Span.)

And there is also: “After years of dawdling while the bridge crumbled, state officials say they are rushing to complete a review of the most feasible solutions to the problem of the Tappan Zee. But a decision is still two years off and a new bridge would require eight additional years and as much as $14.5 billion to build, they say.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/nyregion/a-bridge-that-has-nowhere-left-to-go.html.)

“The bridge was built on a very tight budget of $81 million (1950 dollars), or $796 million in 2014 dollars.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tappan_Zee_Bridge.)

This would indicate that more recent infrastructure is usually neither designed to last as long as some of the older infrastructure, nor is it as reliable and cost effective as some of the older, over-engineered variety.

This would lead many to the position that for some of the older infrastructure, it would be much more economically feasible to repair it, upgrade it, maintain it, than it would be to replace it. This is despite what many of the current infrastructure suppliers might want or even indicate. If it is working and can still continue to work, why would anyone want to build another bridge, right next to the still working one, to carry the same traffic.

However, just because it was initially built well doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t or doesn’t need to be maintained. Infrastructure requires continued investment in order to maintain it: “The repairs, ordered quietly last October by the city’s Department of Transportation, are intended to fortify the concrete-reinforced steel-mesh panels beneath the bridge’s traffic lanes, which were found to be deteriorating by construction crews at work on a repaving project last July, officials said yesterday.….. the city’s Transportation Commissioner, attributed the problems to ”normal wear and tear” on the 115-year-old bridge…..He added that the steel girding and concrete that must be repaired, which were put in place during a 1954 repaving project, ”were installed with a life expectancy of 60 years,” and had therefore fulfilled most of their engineering mandate.” (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/05/nyregion/as-concrete-falls-city-moves-to-fix-brooklyn-bridge.html.)

And of course, 20 years later more maintenance is needed on the Brooklyn bridge, only now, the cost is climbing: “The cost of repairing the Brooklyn Bridge is expected to hit $811 million — a roughly $200 million increase from estimates made only last year, The Post has learned. When the mammoth project to renovate the 133-year-old span began in 2010, the price tag was even lower — $508 million.” (http://nypost.com/2016/11/11/brooklyn-bridge-repairs-expected-to-cost-811m/.)

So, where does all this bridge information leave us when it comes to selling infrastructure?

I think the first thing to note is that unless the infrastructure is at risk of immediate failure, such as the Tappan Zee bridge is deemed to be, it is going to be very difficult to replace. You may be able to add to it. You may be able to augment it. But the financials usually do not make sense for a full replacement. It is going to be a tough sell to get a customer to buy something that does much the same as the thing it is trying to replace.

It also looks as though capacity is going to be the prime driver for infrastructure expansion and augmentation. The more cars that want to get across the river, the bigger the needed bridge, or the more bridges that are needed. New features and elegant designs of bridges are pretty cool, but the objective is to still get cars across the river as efficiently as possible. Form is nice, but it is function that predominantly drives infrastructure acquisition.

And I think finally, there is an excellent business to be had repairing, maintaining and improving the existing infrastructure. As we see above, even incredibly expensive bridge repairs are economically preferable to what would be the exorbitantly expensive cost of replacing the infrastructure. The Tappan Zee replacement bridge is expected to cost between $4 Billion and $15 Billion. The original Tappan Zee cast $81 Million. The financial math becomes pretty obvious, pretty quickly.

Focusing on how to improve the existing infrastructure, extend its life and help it to be used or run more efficiently are going to be keys to a customer first mentality that the good sales teams are going to need in order to be successful.

I think this is going to be especially important as customers are rapidly learning that the new infrastructure they buy today is not going to last as long as the old infrastructure they already have today.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the bridges.

For the Money

“One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four—-to—-go—-!”

In case you are wondering, the earliest attribution for this phrase that I could find is in the children’s book, “Striking for the Right” By Julia Arabella Eastman, in 1872.

Some of you however may be more familiar with the 1955 variation that Carl Perkins included in his song “Blue Suede Shoes’:

“Well, it’s one for the money,
Two for the show,
Three to get ready,
Now go, cat, go.”

I think Elvis did it better than Carl, but that really isn’t relevant to today’s discussion.

In either case, as you might guess, my focus here is going to be on “for the money” as I think we may have lost track of this part of the phrase, particularly as it relates to sales.

A phrase that is generally thought of as a countdown to the start of a children’s race or contest, is becoming more and more germane to the increasingly high-pressure contest of business to business sales. However, in many instances it appears that organizations are skipping the first line of the phrase and focusing on the second, third and fourth lines. Now usually to some form of hardship.

As we go through what might be described as tectonic shifts in the business, capital and sales markets and processes, brought on by the evolution of the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the multiplicity of other technological discontinuities they have engendered, “for the money” is probably going to take on an increasingly important role, particularly in the sales process. It is probably time to start steering away from the age old, tired sales phrases associated with focusing on quality, or value, or any other direction from a past time.

We have all been aware of “Moore’s Law”, which in its simplest iteration generally states that new products arrive with essentially double the previous product’s capacities every eighteen to twenty-four months. What this postulate also infers is that products can be expected to become obsolete every two years as well. This is now an important concept since previous views of product life expectancies were once much longer.

The difference now is that as new capabilities and applications are developed, they are more and more dependent on the latest generation of technology for their functionalities.

As an example: What would you pay for a car today, if you expected that in two years it would not be able to efficiently run on, or possibly even be able to access the new highways that are being built? What would you pay for that car if in two years it would not be capable of allowing you to drive to all the new destinations that would be available then?

Would it change your car buying patterns? Probably.
Would it change how much you would be willing to spend on a car, knowing that your time horizon for needing to purchase the next new car – which would then allow to run on the new highways and go to the new destinations – was going to be so short? I think so as well.

Such is the situation for just about every company and organization when it comes to their information technology needs.

Eureka. This sounds like every vendor’s paradise. Knowing that your customer is going to have to buy a new product every two years. What could be better?

I guess the first thing would be to make sure that all capabilities and applications that are developed are equally applicable across all customers.

Uh oh. That doesn’t seem to be the case since different companies need and demand different capabilities. And since vendors do not have infinite resources to develop all possible applications and capabilities in parallel, we cannot expect a continued alignment of applications, capabilities and the platforms required to run them.

And since customers do not have infinite capital to be able to afford each and every application, capability and platform as they come out, we return the new catch phrase, “for the money”.

Customers do not want the best solution.

I know this sounds like heresy but this has been proven time and time again. They want the best solution – for the money. They do not want the best service. They want the best service – for the money. Value and quality are good, but they are table stakes, not differentiators. And make no mistake about it, since the product life cycles and associated obsolescence are now so short, there is corresponding less money for each customer to spend on each purchase iteration. With the reduction in customer capital available to purchase each new product iteration the question is no longer how much functionality can a customer afford, but what is good enough to serve their purposes for now.

Whether it is said or not, it should be implied that every sentence used in communications between the vendor and customer, should end with the phrase “for the money”.

With this concept in mind it becomes a little easier to understand the changing landscapes for sales in the business to business world. Buying new higher capacity platforms in anticipation of being prepared for future applications or capabilities probably will no longer occur. The fear of platform obsolescence before the capabilities are available, along with new constrictions on purchase funds will probably preclude that.

Future capabilities will be purchased in the future, when they have been developed and can demonstrate immediate (not future) value to the customer.

Because of the direct relationship between purchase capital and product capability, reliability, capacity, speed, etc., all those factors have become negotiable as “for the money” comes into play. Communications networks that had essentially one hundred percent reliability and twenty-year life expectancies are being superseded by far less reliable but faster terrestrial and more convenient but equally less reliable wireless networks. They are good enough, at a far lower cost.

Personal computers and laptops that used to cost thousands of dollars are now costing a couple hundred dollars and are expected to be outdated, and disposable within two years. They are not repaired, they are replaced, at a far lower cost.

I have said that if customers are not buying it is probably because the sales team has not generated the appropriate business case for that customer’s business to justify the purchase. Immediate expenditures will require immediate value generation to offset them.

For the money is emerging as the prime parameter associated with this same customer business case sales process. Customers are recognizing that the lowest common denominator functionalities are what are required for their business. By way of example, Sprint seems to have fully embraced this approach to wireless services in that they are openly touting that they are “within one percent of the coverage / reliability” of their competitors, but only half the cost.

Their catch phrase is: “Why would you pay twice as much for only one percent more?”

We had all better take note of this approach to the market. In case you are wondering, Sprint grew more than any of its competitors in the last quarter. (https://www.cnet.com/news/even-sprint-topped-at-t-verizon-in-customer-growth/). And this is after several previous poor quarter performances.

In the article, it is noted:
“…Sprint with a campaign that essentially boils down to this: We’re good enough for your business. The company’s commercials play up its half-off plans versus the competition (the rates go up after two years) and a mere 1 percent difference between the quality of its network and that of Verizon.”

The key comment for me is “…good enough for your business.” I think this approach is becoming the new norm. Being the best is great, but being good enough, for half the price, is probably going to be better. It seems to be resonating with the market as they continue to attract new customers.

There will always be exceptions to every norm. There will be those customers that truly want the elevated capabilities, and will be willing to pay for them. There are those that want luxury cars as their form of transportation, when there are almost any number of less expensive models that will deliver the same functionality at a far lower cost. Most companies, like most of us, do not have the luxury of preferring luxury.

They are moving more and more toward the Sprint model that good enough, at half the price, is better than the best at double the cost. As budgets continue to constrict, for both consumers and companies, the comparison of what is wanted versus what is good enough for the money, will continue to change the landscape for sales. It is probably time for many businesses to change their sales model to focus on what is good enough for the money.

Why They Aren’t Buying

There are all sorts of allegories for sales. Hunting, farming, fishing, and a large list of others. They all seem somewhat out-doorsy and active (as opposed to passive – waiting for something to happen), but I think you get the point I’m making. Sales also seems to run in streaks. Some days it seems you can’t miss and all you need to say is “sign here, press hard for three copies”. And other days it doesn’t seem to matter what you do. You don’t seem to be able to close a door, let alone a deal.

We all like to think that it is superior salesmanship, or possibly a break-through product or technology advantage, when sales are good. We also like to point to inferior marketing and support, or a weak product offering when sales are not up to expectations.

When sales are not up to desired levels, it is usually left to management to blame poor salesmanship for the results, since both product technology and support are not readily changeable items in any short-term drive to improve sales.

I think the reality of sales booms and sales busts are more associated with those factors that either occur or evolve on a market wide basis. The deregulation of the mortgage industry led to an explosive growth in housing sales as people could then buy more house than they could normally afford, via balloon payment type and other exotic mortgages. This worked well until payments came due and real money was not available. The well documented housing bust and broader economic recession ensued.

Going a little further back into the end of the last century, was the telecom boom associated with deregulation. Companies suddenly found themselves with the opportunity to enter communications markets that they had previously been restricted from. This market attractiveness was further exacerbated by all equipment supplier’s willingness to lend these new companies the funds that they would need to by their equipment to enable access into these new markets.

This too worked well until the then new market was flooded with new competitors. The result was that there was not enough business to go around and no one had the real money needed to make their loan payments on their equipment. The well documented telecom bust then ensued as well.

In both of these examples, as well as many others across many other industries (banking, oil, etc), there were some very good times to be in sales, which were then followed by some very trying times to be in sales. It didn’t really matter what your individual effect on the sales process was.

I bring up these kind of market wide events not because I want to examine them, but because I want to exclude them from any discussion regarding why customers may, or more importantly may not be buying now. When various markets are thrown out of equilibrium by any number of market affecting legislative changes or other events, it seems that standard sales logic just doesn’t apply – usually to the eventual detriment of all involved.

I want to briefly look at why in a stable market, sales may not be achieving your desired goals.

I think that when you look at sales there are basically three aspects that need to be in place to be successful. Some may point to a multiplicity of other factors, but I think when you net them all out, you get back to these three basic ones.

The first is relationship. I know. This is trite. Relationship blah, blah, relationship. There is a reason everyone says it is important. That’s because it is. Do you trust the guy that sells you a car? No? That’s partly because you know that once he sells you a car, you are no longer his problem. You are the service department’s problem. He is probably not going to talk to you or try to sell you anything else for a while, unless you decide you need another car.

In the business to business sales world, most sales people cannot achieve their targets by simply selling something to a customer every three or four years. They have to face their customer continually. What they do after the sale is probably more important than what they do before the contract is signed. That is if they hope to get another sale.

That is how a relationship is built.

The second is the ability to solve a customer’s problem. It might be a problem they didn’t know they had. Faster, better, cheaper are always items that come to mind. Understanding what a customer wants to do as well as why they want to do it are keys here. It is in essence providing an answer to their question.

The third is providing the customer with the proper reason to buy your solution. This is usually known as a business case. If you are ten percent faster, but twice as expensive, is this acceptable? It’s hard to say at this point without more information. However, it’s a much easier decision if you are ten percent faster and the same price as a competitor.

Having a great relationship with your customer, and a great product are no longer enough. There must be a strong enough financial reason for a customer to buy. The customer must expect a sufficient return on the monies that they invest in a product in order to get them to spend those monies.

This customer return can take several forms. Does it reduce their costs of operations? Does it allow them to gain more customers? Does it allow them to get more revenue from their existing customers? And just as importantly, when does it allow them to recognize these returns. These are all very definable and quantifiable numbers.

If they are not, then in today’s business climate and environment, you may have an issue closing a sale. Quantification of customer value is rapidly becoming the key to sales success.

It should be noted that saving a dollar this year is far more preferable than potentially saving ten dollars, five years from now.

It seems that suppliers can get seduced by the elegance of their own technical solutions to their customer’s problems. They have a tendency to forget that just because what they are offering may be technically better than what the customers may currently have, that no longer means that a sale is assured. If the customer cannot identify the quantifiable benefit and returns associated with the proposed purchase, and when these returns can be expected, then the expectation should be of a difficult or delayed sales process.

Just because they trust you and what you are offering is better doesn’t mean they will buy it.

It appears that it is more and more about money, and more specifically today’s money when it comes to sales. Preparing for future opportunities, or addressing potential opportunities, or enabling future applications may no longer be a good enough reason for a customer to part with their limited amount of funds set aside for such expenditures. Customers are recognizing that if the sales discussion involves future benefits to them, then it also means that the actual purchase decision can probably be delayed to that future time when it coincides with those future benefits.

In today’s business environment, if companies are going to spend their money, they need to know what they are going to get in return. Not just the product or service that they are purchasing, but the quantification regarding what the purchased items will mean to their bottom line. How much of a reduction in costs. How many more customers. How much more will they be able to charge.

If today’s product will enable an as yet undefined application or future capability, then it is probably wise to assume that today’s customer may in fact wait to purchase that product until that future application or capability is defined and the market for and value of it can be quantified. Being bigger, better and faster for the sake of being prepared for the next big thing and the potential associated end user demands that go along with it, is probably no longer going to be a good enough reason to purchase.

If your customers aren’t buying, and there is no discernible, market wide issue causing a broader customer industry slowdown, then it is probably a good guess that the appropriate customer spend business case has not been made or met. As markets evolve to this technical solution – appropriate business case model, the solution price will remain a key aspect of every opportunity, but not so much from the aspect of how much a customer has to spend, but more from the point of view of how much the proposed solution must recoup in value for the customer, and as previously noted and just as importantly, how long it takes the customer to recoup it.

It is also possible that this lack of an appropriate specific return customer business case can turn out to be the broader customer industry slowdown, since all customers seem to be heading this direction. It can also depend on the relative competitive starting point for each customer in their respective markets.

It doesn’t seem that being bigger, better, faster or prepared for the next new thing will remain as good enough reasons for customers to buy. It appears that it will not be what the proposed customer solution operationally or technically does, but more what it financially does for the immediate benefit of the customer’s bottom line that will be the purchase decision criteria.

Looking a Little Farther Ahead

I almost got hit by a truck the other day driving home from golf. Now a lot of you may be wondering what that kind of statement has to do with the nominal topics of business management and sales that I usually deal with here. I’ll get to that in a minute. For those of you that live here in Texas, you know that the word “truck” can cover a lot of territory. Everything from a go-kart with a toy wagon bed welded on, to a Peterbilt cab-over semi tractor-trailer. In this case I’m pretty sure that it was a Dodge Ram 2500 Crew Cab since the badging was at eye height as I looked out the window at it. In Texas, this qualifies as a “standard” sized truck. Anything smaller and you’re considered either a poser or a city-boy. Still, it outweighed my full-sized car by close to a ton.

Driving on the freeways in Dallas can usually best be described as a cross between bumper cars and playing a game of “chicken” at seventy miles an hour. As long as everybody abides by the same rules and speed, traffic seems to flow along reasonably, bumper to bumper at seventy miles an hour with a minimum of bad language and hand gestures.

However, occasionally there are those that appear to be unfamiliar with the freeway rules of the road, and opt for what I am sure they feel is a little more intelligently safer speed when changing lanes or taking exit ramps, and other such things. They also usually use their turn signals when performing these maneuvers, and equally importantly, turn off their turn signals when they are done. These people are easy to identify in that they usually have a very long line of impatient drivers behind them.

In this case, I was the then last car in such a line of several cars behind one of these drivers, as we all were taking an off-ramp which connected one high-speed freeway to another.

This position is the most feared position in all of Texas driving. You are going slower than everyone behind you, with little to no options of avoidance in front of, or to the side of you. You have a tendency to watch your rear-view mirror rather closely in such situations.

The SUV immediately behind me was a little slow on the recognition of the situation, but was still able to slow down and pull over to the left side of the ramp, but remained behind me. This maneuver on their part took them out of harm’s way and still left me fully exposed. The truck in question behind them however, did not seem to be as alert to the situation.

Did you know that even though they do not cause the loud, wailing skids that we are all accustomed to on television, you can still hear anti-lock brakes as they try to stop a large truck coming toward you? It’s sort of a staccato noise as the brakes bite and release as they avoid the skid. It is not something you really want to hear as it gets louder or closer.

At the last moment before hitting me, the driver of the truck swerved up over the curb on the ramp to the right of me. His truck came to a stop alongside my car, where as I noted earlier, I could very clearly see its name and size outside my passenger side window.

As traffic started to resume speed, I went ahead and let him pass me on the right. This is not usual protocol for Texas driving, but in light of the circumstances, I felt an exception might be in order. After a moment’s hesitation, the truck drove off and my journey home resumed.

So, here is where the business lesson for this event comes into play.

Most of the time we are all focused on what we are doing at that particular time. We are minding our own business. We are focused on our deliverables. We are paying attention to our deadlines. We have our own worries.

Occasionally we look up to see what the next step is. We have a process. We are preparing for what we must do next. We are looking ahead, but only at what comes next. We are aware that there are other factors that are coming into play. We are in effect checking the car in front of us.

For the most part, this approach will keep you out of most of the trouble that is out there. However, there will come a time when the expected events will not occur. The situation will present itself with alarming speed.

In other words, you could find yourself driving along in your big Texas truck, minding your own business, when suddenly the car directly in front of you dodges out of the way and you find yourself presented with the opportunity to smash into me from behind.

It’s not enough to only be aware of what you are doing and what those immediately around you are doing. On occasion, you need to be looking up and checking the horizon. What is coming into view? What are the competitors doing? Are they adding or deleting resources? What are the customers doing? Are they buying and spending, or are they delaying purchases? What are the analysts saying about the market in general and the company in particular?

Are there multiple cars up ahead with their brake lights on, and should you be prepared to, or possibly already be in the process of slowing down?

The combination of the increased reliance on process, along with the seemingly continuous growth in the reverence for the corporate fire fighter when the process fails, does not seem to mesh with this anticipatory approach to things. Processes have been implemented for the most part to reduce the reliance on this kind of judgement. It almost seems that the corporate fire fighter has been integrated into the process for those times when the process breaks down.

Sort of a “In case of Fire, Break Glass” kind of thing.

The lanes in business continue to be further refined by process. Dotted lines become solid lines, become multiple solid lines, become fixed dividers. If you don’t believe this to be the case, just look at any inter-organizational process flow chart.

It is very easy to focus solely on what you are doing. To perform your function in the process. The organizational structure and incentives now focus on that type of professional behavior. And for the most part, things can and do go relatively smoothly. Until they don’t.

Inevitably someone will miss a step, or improperly hand-off an incomplete work project, and things will unexpectedly slow down. Customers may decide to postpone their next purchase and wait for the next generation of product. Competitors may introduce new technology ahead of when it was expected. Foreign competitors may decide to instigate a new competitive approach based on price.

Processes are resistant to change, and will take time to adapt. They don’t come with anti-lock brakes. They have an inherent amount of momentum associated with them. Just like a speeding full sized, crew cab Texas truck. It’s not enough to be performing your operational duties in a vacuum. You need to be looking forward at the traffic and events in front of you.

Markets don’t provide plenty of warning when they are going to change. Customers rarely tell you when they are going to slow down or stop buying altogether. Companies usually don’t give you a pre-notice when they are going to have to react to the changes in customer and market status.

Looking out, looking forward, anticipating the changes in the business environment are still key to navigating in business. Processes are helpful in simplifying the immediate and making it somewhat more predictable, but it is still your responsibility to be anticipating those future needs and directions that the business environment will present you.

Now if I could just get the people in those large trucks when they following me to do that a little better.

What is a “Plug”?

For some reason, I have been reading and thinking about forecasting for the last little while. One of the words that seems to be popping up more and more frequently in the business literature with respect to forecasting is the word “plug”. I have actually heard this word in past forecasting meetings that I have attended. I thought I might delve in a level deeper than just understanding forecasting, and look into one of the more favored words in the forecasting vernacular: “plug”.

Plug is an interesting word. The dictionary defines it as both a noun (a thing) and a verb (an action). I’ve also talked about words like this before. You used to go to a party, and now you can also go and party. I think that plug is a much earlier iteration of this particular phenomena. Usually a word is used as either a noun or a verb. I am not so sure that this is the case with the word plug when it comes to its business usage. I think that when you hear the word “plug” in business, it is both a thing and an action at the same time.

As a noun plug can usually mean either:

“an obstruction blocking a hole, pipe, etc.” or “a device for making an electrical connection, especially between an appliance and a power supply…”.

As a verb Plug can usually mean either:

“block or fill in (a hole or cavity)” or “mention (a product, event, or establishment) publicly in order to promote it.”

For now, I think I’ll ignore the appliance power cord and product promotion definitions for obvious reasons, and focus on the other two.

As the ends of various months, quarters, and years come into view, forecasting takes on a role of increased importance. Depending on the business performance, as these end of period times roll around forecasting can take on both a greater frequency and intensity, especially if the numbers are not in management’s desired range. As I have noted, forecasting is essentially the comparing of what you think the numbers are going to be with what you want the numbers to be.

I have also noted the “volumetric force” associated with forecasts. This is the management drive and desire for all forecasts to be either at or exceeding the desired targets. This desire to respond to or please management has a tendency to render forecasts possibly slightly more optimistic than what they might normally be, so that management can smile. But what do you do when the forecast obviously does not meet the desired levels?

You insert what is called a plug into the forecast.

You find a way to provide the management desired levels in the forecast numbers. You forecast the performance that is defined, and then you add in an amount equal to the difference between the goal and the defined forecast, which is undefined. This undefined amount is known as the “plug”.

You are in effect using the verb definition of the word “plug” as a noun. You are essentially filling a hole (a verb) in the forecast with a plug (a thing). It is normally the noun function that is turned into a verb, but here we have the verb function that is turned into a noun.

I guess it is a little thing (a very little thing) but it amuses me, so I have included it.

I have also noted in the past that if a forecast is knowingly presented to management, and it does not at least meet the desired targets, that whoever submits such a lacking forecast could be subject to a significant amount of incremental management attention and assistance. As I also noted this attention and assistance will usually continue until the forecast realigns with the desired targets.

The quicker the plug is inserted into the forecast; the faster management can feel better about the forecast.

I think this may somehow be related to the genesis of the saying “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” This quote is attributed to Captain Bligh, or the HMS Bounty, when told of the forecast associated with how the crew felt about reaching Pitcairn’s Island. It is also apparently quite applicable to a multitude of other management groups.

Plugs were developed in forecasts as a way to create a real and accurate forecast (that potentially does not meet management expectations), yet also provide an acknowledgement of the expectations of management in order to avoid the incremental assistance of management. Plugs are the as yet unidentified portion of a forecast, that will (hopefully) be defined in the future, and will result in the meeting of the desired targets.

This results in the equation:

Actual Forecast + Unidentified Forecast (Plug) = Presented Forecast

Plugs are an acknowledgement that the actual forecast doesn’t meet the desired levels, but the miss to forecast has been identified and is being worked, so that extra management reviews of the forecast (or beatings, as the case may be) are not going to be necessary.

On the surface, this type of forecasting technique sounds great. The actual forecast can be presented to management, as well as the desired number that management wants to see. They get both reality and what they want.

However, if you are going to use the Plug Gambit in a forecast, you need to understand that it is a double-edged sword, and it has a limited shelf life. It is a double-edged sword in that a forecast is being presented to management that is in essence telling them that their desired number is going to be achieved. If it is not, then there will be significant, and now merited management attention visited upon those that delivered such a faulty forecast.

The plug in a forecast also has a limited shelf life in that it is expected to reduce as time passes, and the measurement period draws to a close. An example is that a plug in a forecast during the first month of a three-month quarter might be acceptable. However, the same plug in the third month of a quarter should definitely garner incremental management attention.

So, there you have it. A plug is an artifice, inserted into a forecast in order to avoid (at least temporarily) unwanted incremental management attention associated with the forecast. It is an identified amount, but from an unidentified source. It can be sales to unidentified customers, or cost reduction from unidentified actions.

Once a plug has been inserted into a forecast, it is almost impossible to improve the level of the forecast. This is because as new opportunities are identified, they reduce the amount of the plug, as opposed to actually improving the forecast.

With this in mind, it is my understanding that the latest management approach to limiting the use of plugs in forecast is to in fact request and drive for improvements to any forecast that does contain a plug. This has the effect of requiring double the desired growth as the plug must first be filled before the forecast can be increased. This move by management will no doubt engender some as yet unknown, new methodology for forecasting, as the ongoing escalation associated with business forecasting continues.

This is very similar to the idea that the fastest cheetahs only caught the slowest gazelles. This natural selection meant that only the fastest gazelles (and cheetahs) survived. The ongoing evolutionary race is forecasted to continue going forward on the African Savannah.

However, I think it is pretty obvious that in this example, gazelles do not get to insert plugs into their speed forecast.

Forecasts

Forecast meetings are interesting animals. They are basically meetings where you compare what you think the numbers are going to be, with what you want the numbers to be. Over time I have had the opportunity to attend many different types of forecast meetings. Sales, Revenue, Cost, Delivery, all types of forecast meetings. I have found that there are basically two types of forces competing for supremacy at a forecast meeting: The volumetric force, which is the force working to drive the numbers toward what they are wanted to be, and the accuracy force, which is the force driving the numbers toward what they have a higher probability of being.

The volumetric force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are either meeting or exceeding the business plans for that particular aspect of the business, regardless of whether they are or not. This means that for example, if it is a sales forecast in question, the desire is to see the annual sales target for business to be divided by twelve (coincidentally the number of months in a year) and to see the sales forecast incremented upwards by one twelfth the annual sales target each month, which is coincidentally the usual frequency of the sales forecasting meeting.

The accuracy force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are relatively reliable, and have a relatively high probability of actually becoming reality. An example here would be if the average interval between order and revenue was six weeks, and the orders target was achieved with eight weeks remaining in the quarter, there is a reasonably high expectation that the revenue forecast should also be reliably achieved.

Sometimes these forces work in concert. This is where the volume of the forecast and the accuracy of the forecast are both close to, or ahead of the desired targets. This can mean that sales are above target, or costs are below target, or both. This is also where there is a very high probability of the business sales or cost performance coming in at or very close to the forecasted numbers.

In business vernacular, times when the volume and the accuracy of the forecasts are both on target are usually known as “rarefied air”. They don’t align this way very often. When they do it seems to be a foregone conclusion that either the volume or accuracy targets for the next forecast will be changed significantly.

Once the volume and accuracy targets for the forecast have been modified to the point where one or both of the variables are now in question, the business process can now be considered back in normal state equilibrium, or more accurately in the normal state of disequilibrium.

One of the primary topics of forecasts are the numbers. It is usually a good rule of thumb that if there is anything but numbers in a forecast meeting, then somebody is trying to distract somebody else’s attention from the numbers. Given the opportunity, there is a reasonably high probability that those responsible for presenting the forecast will try to add in extraneous information of some type, if their forecasted numbers do not meet or exceed their assigned targets.

Both a strength and a weakness of the forecasting process is the periodicity with which it occurs. Regular forecasts enable the business to prepare for and adapt to the forecasted changes and values that are projected. If forecasting meetings are held too often, there is not enough time for new events to occur and the forecast to change. This results in wasted effort and repeated information.

On the other hand, if they are held too infrequently, it can mean that events have occurred during the forecast interval that must now be responded to in a far shorter time. It can also mean that the results of the last forecasting meeting can be forgotten or obscured. This can result in a loss of directionality as to how the forecast is either progressing or regressing. One of the main benefits of the forecasting process is to get an understanding of which direction the specific piece of the business is moving.

This results in the potential need for at least some incremental information to be included in the forecast. Again, think numbers. The most useful of which is the comparison of the current forecast to the desired target numbers. That provides a snapshot of what the predicted versus the desired performance will be. The next useful piece of information will be the comparison of the last forecast to the current forecast. This information provides a directionality to the snapshot. Is the forecast getting better, worse or staying the same with respect to the targets?

Adding much information beyond the targets and the previous forecast can cause the information in the forecast to become somewhat garbled or confusing. I have seen forecasts where the information was compared to multiple previous forecasts, or the forecast from the same period a year earlier. This one I am not sure I understand, unless you are looking for some sort of a longer-range piece of information regarding how things have changed, or not, over a year.

To me the salient point is always to know how things are progressing towards this year’s targets. Knowing what last year’s forecast was for the same time period can be a little bit like knowing what the weather was forecasted to be for the same day, a year ago. It might be interesting to know, but it has little to do with whether or not you will need an umbrella or not tomorrow.

The purpose of forecasts is to alert you to the state of the business with as much lead warning as is possible. Do those presenting the forecast indicate that things are getting better? Are they getting worse? It takes time for changes to produce the desired effects in a business. The more time that you have to make them, the greater the effect that they can have. Does the forecast indicate that any changes are required at all?

This is where the volumetric forecasting force can work against the business. As stated, this force is the desire to forecast increasing performance, that is at or near the desired targets. But what happens if either the market conditions, or business performance are such that the actual forecast is indicating that the numbers are moving away from the desired targets?

If you actually forecast this type of event, the known decline of performance and missing of a target, you are inviting what is known as “management assistance”. This type of assistance usually comes in the form of even more forecasting meetings where the opportunity to explain what is going on is made available, that is until the forecasts improve in line with desired results.

So, what happens?

A general rule of thumb is that once a forecast is created, it cannot get worse. They can either improve, or stay the same, but having a forecast that is moving away from the target will cause much consternation. As we all know, business is a continually changing environment and set of events. Very little in business can or should stay the same. Accurate forecasts should reflect the constantly changing environment.

If you see a forecast, of any type, that is not changing with time, then you know it is getting worse.

The advantage to this situation is that management is not being directly told that things are getting worse, so they have plausible deniability to their senior management, and the business performers are not having to spend incremental time explaining what has occurred, and what they are doing to correct it. They can just get on with correcting the performance and trying to improve the forecast.

However, this approach will only work for a while. Eventually even management will have to recognize that they are being shown the same information over a prolonged period of time and they will be forced to question it. Once this type of questioning on the relative believability of the forecast begins, there is little that can be done to stop it. This is where plausible deniability ends.

As process has continued to expand its role within business, forecasting has also become the forecasting process. This usually means that instead of just having the person or team closest to, or responsible for the specific set of numbers for that specific period enter them into the forecast, they must now put them on a form where they are then routed to many other people and teams who are either only tangentially or wholly unrelated to the numbers, can then approve them before they are actually entered into what will become the forecast.

Forecasting is a critical aspect of a successful business. The ability to accurately predict present and future performance enables business groups and disciplines to take the most effective actions to benefit the business. Understanding how forecasts are put together, and being able to accurately interpret the numbers they contain are key capabilities for the business leader to learn.

It is also critical for the business leader to be able to interpret the information that the forecast contains that may not be specifically numeric in nature.

Write It Down

A very small event occurred yesterday. On the surface, it usually doesn’t mean much, but I try to recognize them anyway. The pen I had been using to take notes on my activities and calls with, to jot down ideas with, and to work out solutions with, ran out of ink. As I said, on the surface, it didn’t mean much other than I had written down enough stuff that I had exhausted the ink cartridge in one of those disposable pens that I like to use. And as I said, it was a little thing, but I noticed it.

So, why am I writing about such a seemingly innocuous topic?

I learned long ago, back in college, in a time long before Personal Computers, that the quality of what I was able to learn, retain and utilize was directly related to what I wrote down. It was just me, but writing something helped me get it.

This of course was then the only way to capture information when taking notes in a lecture. This was a time before smart phones that enabled you to play Angry Birds video games in class while they recorded the entire lecture for you to peruse at some later time when you weren’t so focused on something else. It was a time when the professor’s words were ephemeral. They were spoken and then they were gone.

I found that intently listening was not good enough. If I physically wrote them down I not only captured them on paper, I captured them much better in my own mind. Revisiting the notes was always useful when it came time to study, but it was the initial writing down of the information that provided the most value.

When it came time for studying, I found that annotating those already written notes, in effect rewriting them, helped me prepare that much better. Somehow the act of writing helped me learn and retain information that much better.

When I told some of my friends about this study and retention technique, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I still used it anyway.

I thought about this idea, which is no mean feat for a then teenager. I wondered if the simple act of writing down concepts and notes as they pertain to lectures was such an aid to my learning and retention, would it also work with my academic reading load?

Till then I, like most of my student peers, just used a highlighter to highlight those passages in text books that I thought were important. I then tried taking notes on the textbook assignments I had instead of just the typical highlighting. It seemed to work as well. At least for me, it worked. I retained and was able to utilize the information far better than when I just read and highlighted it.

These realizations drove several changes in my behavior that still stay with me today. Whenever I need to learn and retain something I write it down. I learned that I no longer wanted lose-leaf binders and discrete sheets of paper. Paper would become ragged and eventually tear and fall out. I wanted permanently bound composition notebooks so the notes would always be there.

I didn’t want large, full sheet sized notebooks as they were prone to succumbing to the abuse that repeated access would cause, nor did I want the small note card sized ones as those did not allow for sufficient information per page. Hard cardboard or plastic covers were also desirable.

The simple act of my pen running out of ink got me to thinking about all of this learning, and retention and utilization of information. I wondered if it was just me or did others utilize this practice. I noticed that some of my now professional peers in the office also had notebooks, although many did not. As PCs have continued to proliferate, this notebook habit seems to be rarer and rarer.

I have tried to replace my notebooks with my PC. There are a couple of things holding me back. First, although I took typing in high school, I am still basically a “two-finger” typist. If I really get going, the number might expand to four, but never approaches the ultimate of using all ten fingers. The second is, that when I used the PC instead of the notebook, I didn’t retain the information nearly as well. It just didn’t work as well as writing it down for me.

I wondered if this was just me, or if others had found the same thing, so I Googled it. By the way, I continue to find it interesting how in this language a proper noun, the name of a company, can become a verb. Sort of like how having a “party” has now morphed into “partying”. I guess this is also the origin of “Xeroxing” as well.

Sorry. I digressed.

I searched “information retention from writing”. Holy smokes. A ton of stuff came up, supporting and detailing just what I have been talking about.

“A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

“Why Using Pen And Paper, Not Laptops, Boosts Memory: Writing Notes Helps Recall Concepts, Ability To Understand” http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-using-pen-and-paper-not-laptops-boosts-memory-writing-notes-helps-recall-concepts-ability-268770

“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html

“Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm

These are just some of the articles that came up on the first page, and they are predominantly from the last ten years or so. They also seem to deal with the difference in learning between typing and writing, although the last couple do deal with the cognitive and comprehension benefits of writing something down.

This was just the first page. Google said there was something on the order of one hundred and twenty-one million results to my search. Judging by the first hits, I am going to guess that the rest will be rather supportive of the position.

That position, as you might guess, is write it down.

Ah, but there are probably some out there that are at least thinking to themselves that this is all well and good, and after all this discussion about the value of writing things down, does he “write” down his blogs and then transcribe them on the computer? The answer is no. I do not. I actually compose at the computer.

I have thought about this as well.

The best description of the difference that I can come up with is that when I want to learn and retain information, I write it down. I am trying to take external information and internalize it. Writing it down is part of the process that helps me do this more efficiently.

On the other hand, when I am trying to take thoughts and information that are already internalized and express them, I find that the keyboard is actually a faster methodology. I can compose better at the keyboard.

It seems that at least in this cognitive approach technology has the benefit of improving the expression of the written word, but not so much the learning or retention of the information that it represents.

We all like to think of ourselves as somewhat unique. However, there are many things that we have in common. Understanding how we learn is something of a baseline that can also help us understand how we work, and more importantly how we can work better.

As business continues to increase in complexity and velocity, we have more and more information that we need to find ways to internalize that much faster. I think we need to understand that the tools that we employ, at least for me, are best utilized at helping in the expressing of our ideas. The taking of what we have and providing it to others.

On the other side of the same coin though, they are probably not so much good in the process of learning and utilizing of the ideas and information that others have provided via the same medium.

I think this is a point that needs to be remembered going forward. Computers and all the other forms of automation and intelligence that are out there, are better applied as capabilities that enable us to express the information that we have already internalized, but they are not nearly so good, or so helpful in aiding us in the understanding or internalizing of the information that they provide us.

If you really want to learn something, all the data and the research says that one of the best ways to do it is to write it down.

I think I’ll go get another disposable pen out of the pack now.

Hard Work

Perhaps I am getting a little too retrospective, or was it introspective. I forget which.

I think it is interesting how my concept of “Hard Work” has changed over time. I used to think of it as moving rocks and landscaping timbers around our yard for my mother when I was younger. Hours in the heat with all that physical exertion. Then I remember that I was also a competitive tennis player back then, and that also entailed hours in the heat with significant physical exertion. That didn’t seem to be as hard work, at least back then.

Now both yard work and tennis in the heat of a Texas summer seem somewhat equally uninviting. Right now, both seem like pretty hard work.
I think I would like to look at what hard work was, what it is today, and possibly more importantly, what it may become in the future.

I seem to recall that I also had a distinct dislike for reading text books and studying (on my own time, after school, when I wanted to do other stuff, of all things). It was hard work to both get myself to do it, and to maintain the focus on topic so I could learn and master the required topics. Now I find myself reading recreationally on those same topics, as well as many others related to my professional disciplines, and actually enjoying it. Now it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Using these examples, it seems that hard work is the work that we don’t want to do, but are somehow compelled to do. It may be best described as doing something which you have not fully bought into doing. Something you have to do, instead of something you want to do. I think I’ll go with that definition for now.

I had bought into the idea of spending hours in the heat practicing the various aspects of my tennis game. Initially not so much on the yard work for the then family home. Later with my own home and family, I enjoyed both the tennis and the yard work. Now, in the triple digit heat of a Texas summer, I do my best to refrain from both.

As an aside, I didn’t require my kids to join me working in the yard, as I was compelled to do. I don’t know at this point if I did them a disservice.

So far, neither of them has complained about not being required to do yard work in the heat. Go figure.

For some reason, I find myself quoting Mark Twain, a lot. I don’t know if it is just happenstance, or if there is some other type of connection. Either way, he seemed to say many things that can still be considered truisms today. He said:

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But I am actually not so sure that is the case. I think it may be more along the lines of: If you do something that you buy into doing, it means that you will not consider it “hard work”.

You may be fully engaged. You may get to the office early. You may stay late. If you are bought in, and are committed to the deliverable, none of what you are doing is going to feel like hard work. You are getting satisfaction and fulfillment from the effort, and probably feel you are providing value in what you are doing.

I have found when I am engaged and committed I have internalized the assignment or objective, and I want to deliver and excel. I suspect that I am not too different from the majority of people out there. Given the opportunity, I think most everyone wants to be engaged, and to have internalized their work goals. What I have learned over time is that people probably cannot be trained or managed into this type of commitment. They need to be led to it.

I think the ability to do this is probably a learned capability.

I think back to the periods in time when my views about what was and wasn’t hard work changed. When the drudge work of studying for an exam was supplanted by the desire to walk into the exam confident in the knowledge and command of the material. Some kids seem to get this early in their educational career. Let’s just say that it was quite a way into my educational journey before I learned it. Much the same feeling as when the drudge work of the preparing for the customer (or even internal) presentation changed to ownership and the confidence that went with it, although that one came much quicker in my professional career.

People buy into ownership and leadership. If they are given a responsibility and are shown how their role plays into the greater good, the process of getting them to buy in has started. But that is normally not enough. People want to contribute. This is where the pride of ownership comes in.

Communicating the “what” part of what needs to be accomplished is only part of the process. It is the “how” part of the objective, as in how is the goal to be achieved that will either get internalization and buy-in, or probably get the function labeled as “hard work”.

If people are told what they must do, and how they must do it, there is very little for them to contribute to the function, other than being the vessel that performs the assigned tasks in the prescribed manner. They may have no pride of ownership. Without it, almost everything, regardless of how simple or easily achieved has the potential to be considered hard work.

As I said, we all have goals that we need to achieve for the greater good of the business, but I can’t help feeling that being told what to do and how to do it sounds like a definition of hard work.

Even with all of that preamble, I believe that the working environment, and for that matter all work, not just hard work is going to change. I have talked about the application of process as a substitute for judgement in business before. Good judgement is a necessary leadership characteristic. There are those that seem to innately have good judgement, and there are those that have acquired it as a result of their experiences.

Randy Pausch in his book “The Last Lecture” said:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

This is a pretty well known, and surprisingly accurate assessment of the world. What may not be as well known, is the second line from this quote. It goes:

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

But as business continues its journey from process to automation and beyond (Artificial Intelligence?), getting experience, that most valuable thing, the basis for good judgement (at least for most of us) is going to be a more and more difficult thing to obtain.

Career progressions that were once based on the recognition of an underlying business issue, and the creation and implementation of solutions to rectify them, will no longer be the norm. It will become more along the lines of being compelled to follow the steps in the existing process. As experience is gained in one step, there may then be the potential opportunity to manage multiple steps, or entire processes, or potentially multiple processes. Work will change from the creation of a solution to a problem, to the management of the existing process.

One of the issues that we seem to be facing today is that we no longer appear to be accepting, let alone rewarding the individual who does what we used to call “Thinking Outside the Box”.

That does sound pretty trite to me, but unfortunately also pretty applicable.

Process minimizes the risk of poor judgment and the variability of results. But as business appears to be creating more processes, as a substitute for judgement, that compel people to remain in the process box, it also makes the opportunity for business (or process) improvement that much more difficult to achieve.

I guess this can be an acceptable situation if you are confident that the process in place is optimal. But again, we have all seen and have grown accustomed to the idea that the rate of change in business is continuing to accelerate. The progression of work from on shore, to off shore, to automation, to the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) should underscore this. So even if a process was optimal at one time, it does not appear that it can remain optimal in the face of accelerating change.

I think the future of hard work will lie in compelling people to continue to use more or less fixed processes in the face of ongoing, rapid change. The process structure by its nature is resistant to change with its multiple parties, stakeholders and check points and desire for predictability, and that does not bode well for it going forward in a continually more unpredictable environment.

Perhaps the new business leaders of the future will be the ones that instead of just recognizing and solving an issue, also master the means of rapidly modifying and adapting existing processes to the changing environment. That will probably require a fundamental change in how processes are created and managed. The proverb states that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I think that is the case here. Otherwise I think there is going to be an awful lot of hard work for everyone in the future.

Joining Them

For those of you that don’t directly know me, I can have a tendency to cause problems. I like to think of myself as a knowledge worker. That means that I tend to make my living utilizing my brain power as opposed to my muscle power. That also means that when people ask me questions, I (sometimes mistakenly) think that they are asking me to use the sum total of that brain power, experiences, training, and cognitive capabilities to provide what I think is the best response to their queries.

Many times, however, it seems that people who ask me questions are not actually looking for my response. They are looking for their response. They may already have an answer that they like, they just want me to agree with it. Sometimes I do. Many times, I don’t.

My wife, who also happens to be a very smart lady has learned that when she asks me something, the probability is asymptotically close to zero that I will provide her the response that she is looking for. Her solution to this situation has been to stop asking me questions or for my opinions all together. She now just goes ahead and does whatever it was she had already decided was best in the first place.

Sometimes I find out about it later. Many times, I don’t. I am told we are both happier with this arrangement.

In the past, this approach to business has stood me in good stead. I think it was pretty much this way for everyone. If your judgement was good, and you were right more often then you were wrong, you progressed forward. However, as times have changed in business, this approach to answering questions, or taking on assignments, has now led to me sometimes being viewed as something of a rebel in the process driven world.

As I said, initially this classification didn’t bother me, as such. I actually looked upon it with a certain sense of pride. I think part of it was that business and organizational process was still somewhat in its relative infancy as a methodology for management, and part of it was that for the most part I could still get things done. I would examine a problem, create a solution and chart a course for implementing it.

We had a business structure that was built on a Risk – Reward basis. If you had a better way of doing things and had the belief in it such that you put it out in front of the team and defended it, there was a real probability that you might get the opportunity to actually do it.

As the old saying goes: Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.

If you were right, and you implemented a solution that did improve things, you got the opportunity to continue on your trajectory. On the other hand, if you were wrong, or for whatever reason were unable to implement your solution, it was usually some time before you got another chance to do something new.

As the inexorable tide of process continues to rise within organizations, this approach to career trajectories appears to be a thing of the past. There is less and less room for rebels within a process driven system. There is less and less opportunity, and just as importantly capability, to effect change as the purview of process has continued to grow.

I had been thinking about this dichotomy for a while.

All sorts of quotes and thoughts have come to mind.

Japanese literature has many books about the tragic heroes throughout its history. Those that chose to stay true to their ideals and suffered defeat and paid the ultimate price for doing so. Many are now revered in Japanese society for what they did. Despite knowing that they were fighting a battle that they could not win, they chose to continue to fight.

I respect that. But it is not lost on me that they didn’t win. And they got killed.

If you are interested in reading any of this stuff, there are several books that I would recommend: The Nobility of Failure – Tragic heroes in the history of Japan, by Ivan Morris, Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, and Liam Hearn’s fully fictional Tales of the Otori series are all good.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is an excellent quote from Sam Rayburn. For those of you that don’t know him, he was a U.S. Representative from the 4th District in Texas. He was also the longest serving Speaker of the House in history, serving in that role for seventeen years between 1940 and 1961.

He also has a modern tollway named after him here in the Dallas area. You have to pay if you want to drive on it.

He said: “If you want to get along, you have to go along”.

Spoken like a true politician. I am not so sure if that is a really good way to proceed either, although there do seem to be many today in business that appear to subscribe to it.

I recently came across a quote by Marie Lu, who is a contemporary author of several series of young adult books. I haven’t read any of her books yet, as it is readily apparent that I am somewhat beyond young adulthood at this point. The quote struck such a chord with me that I will probably have to go out and read at least some of her books to see if they can live up to the expectations that this quote has set for me.

She said: “If you want to rebel, rebel from inside the system. That’s much more powerful than rebelling outside the system.”

Corporate organizational and process structures have now become so ingrained from a business and operations standpoint, that it is almost impossible for an individual to step outside of them and be perceived as offering anything constructive or beneficial to the business. Notice that I said almost. People such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and the late Steven Jobs at Apple all have stood as individual rebels who stepped outside the then corporate norm with great success.

It should also be noted that in order to achieve their ultimate goals that they had to stand so far outside the then corporate norm as to have to create their own new corporations and models. There were precious few if any companies that would have accepted their radical approaches to the business issues that they took on.

They didn’t seem to accept the then standard process. They believed in their own judgement.

However, many of us may not have had the absolute vision or solution on the scale that these rebels did. We may see what is wrong within the organization that we currently find ourselves in. We may see what needs to change in order to improve the business or opportunity that we are in. We face a conundrum. We know the structure or process in question is not optimal. We also know that if we rebel against it, from outside of it, the inertia of the process will more than likely continue in its present direction.

Do we stand by what we believe is correct and rebel (figuratively of course) from outside the process, or do we join the process with the hope and plan on changing it from within?

There are several people who seem to have been credited with the phrase “If you can’t beat them, then join them”. I saw various attributions which included Jim Henson (I don’t seem to remember any Muppet saying this), and Mort Sahl (a comedian from the 1960’s), but both Bartleby.com and the Yale Book of Quotes attribute the quote to Senator James E. Watson of Indiana, with its first appearance in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in February of 1932.

It seems that Marie Lu has put a new spin on a much older idea. The new spin is that Joining the system or the process does not necessarily mean the acquiescence and submission to those principles that it once did. But rather, the only way to now generate effective change for a business process or a system is now from within it.

Again, for those of you who know me, you probably understand how it pains me to say this.

External rebels within a defined business structure and process are probably going to go the way of the previously mentioned Japanese tragic heroes who may have been fighting a good and just battle in the face of insurmountable odds. While they might have been right, they didn’t achieve their goals. They didn’t survive either.

Those that went along in order to get along didn’t achieve their goals either. They may have survived but I’m not sure that really is a preferred existence.

I think the process driven structures of business today are now in such a state that the only way to effect meaningful change to them, is to do so from within them. External influence on a process has a decreasingly small effect on them. That means that you will have to join them. That doesn’t mean total acquiesce and allegiance to them. It just means that going forward in today’s business world, it appears that one of the only ways to change a flawed business process will be from within the process itself.